The titular protagonist of Guan Hu’s well-crafted crime drama Mr. Six is a retired gangster in his late fifties, a no-nonsense Beijinger with a severely buzzed hairstyle who now uses his intimidating presence for good by fixing the problems that occur around his residential district. Although he shares qualities with the stoic tough guys portrayed by such international screen icons as Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Takeshi Kitano, the similarly gruff Mr. Six is very much a Beijing character. As played by writer-director and sometime actor Feng Xiaogang, Mr. Six not only belongs to a particular neighborhood of a particular city, but also represents a particular time that has long since passed, even if he stubbornly refuses to accept it. Feng’s name probably means little to viewers outside of China, but he is a hero to audiences at home having ushered in a new era of commercial cinema with his broadly satirical comedies in the 1990s before turning to dramatic fare and historical epics in the 2000s. Widely recognized from his promotional appearances and copious product endorsements, Feng has used his populist clout to weigh-in on matters ranging from the commercialisation of society to state corruption. As such, the role of Mr. Six is essentially a rugged variation of his straight-talking public persona that will undoubtedly resonate with China’s mature cinemagoers.
As a genre piece, Mr. Six deliberately takes a while to get going, with the laidback first half yielding some of its best scenes, recalling Gao Qunshu’s scattershot procedural Beijing Blues (2012). As means of establishing his community standing, we see Mr. Six deal with two troublesome situations – he instructs a pickpocket to return his mark’s identity card by post and acts as an intermediary when a cop tries to arrest an unlicensed bird peddler for damaging a vehicle with his cart. While some people make the mistake of dismissing Mr. Six based on his age, those who know his fearsome, almost mythological reputation treat him with absolute respect. Painfully aware of how the city has changed since he was an underworld force in the 1980s, Mr. Six is mostly content to spend his days skating on a frozen lake while listening to radio dramas or working his old-school charm on girlfriend Auntie Chatterbox (Xu Qing), who is as besotted as much with the changed man as she is with the living legend.
As is often the case in crime dramas with ageing protagonists, it’s a family problem that proves harder than usual for the veteran to resolve – Mr. Six’s son Bobby (pop star Li Yifeng) has been taken hostage by Xiao Fei (Kris Wu), the leader of a drag-racing gang who is incensed that Bobby has slept with his girlfriend and scratched his turbo-charged Enzo Ferrari. Mr. Six can barely contain his disgust for Kris’ flash attitude but concedes that his son’s behaviour has been unacceptable. He hits up old contacts for loans in order to raise the ¥100,000 that Kris demands as compensation, but tensions escalate at their next meeting and an early morning showdown between gangs is scheduled for a weeks’ time behind the Summer Palace in order to settle things in accordance with “Beijing rules”.
Following two films set during the Second Sino-Japanese War – Cow (2009) and The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel (2013) – Guan moves into the present with cinematography Pan Lou capturing Beijing in steely blues and smoggy greys, creating a palette that fuses a measure or noir atmosphere with everyday realism. There are plenty of key crime elements in the mix – beatings, shakedowns, fierce staring contests, a moody saxophone score by Peng Dou, side characters with nicknames like Bandit, Matchstick, Scrapper, and Wolf – but Mr. Six himself proves to be less of a hard boiled anti-hero than a symbol of a value system that has eroded since his heyday. Filming around the Houhai area, which maintains some semblance of traditional Beijing lifestyle through its hutong culture while also boasting the kind of fashionable refurbished hangouts that attract tourists and trend-spotters seeking ‘authenticity’, Guan shows how Mr. Six’s world is gradually receding. Straining for relevance in a commoditized landscape despite struggling with a heart condition, the reformed hoodlum sees the conformation with Kris as a chance to get his mojo back yet instead finds himself restoring his relationship with his estranged son and bemoaning the condescending representation of elderly citizens in popular media. It’s surprising to see an underworld figure being treated with such reverence in China’s state-approved mainstream cinema, but the scourge of the past is a model citizen compared to the insolent youth of the present.
At the other end of the generational spectrum, the platinum-haired Kris and his gang are posturing brats whose amateur villainy is given a layer of political commentary by Guan and co-screenwriter Dong Runnian’s decision to make the ringleader the son of a powerful official. Styled like they are auditioning for a China-set installment of the Fast and Furious franchise, the gang constitutes everything that Mr. Six hates about the possession-orientated youth of today. Although he is well aware that some angry kids could cause harm in a fight, he does not see these fuerdai (second generation rich) as a significant threat. Instead, the real battle here is within Mr. Six himself as he rationalizes returning to his violent ways despite previously chiding others for resorting to such actions. Although the trailers for Mr. Six promise a violent thriller, there’s actually little on-screen action, with an emphasis on sustained anticipation over brutal bloodletting.
A lengthy sit at 137 minutes, Mr. Six occasionally threatens to overflow with frustration and regret, but is calmly anchored throughout by Feng’s charismatic performance. Shot during the winter months, it’s sometimes harsh yet never cold round the heart, with Guan playing with genre conventions to find some moving moments and unexpected flourishes within its dense urban landscape as it steadily heads towards its time honoured conclusion.