Uncle and House (China, 2019) [NYAFF 2019]

2018 saw a slew of critically acclaimed films coming out of China’s southern Guizhou province, including Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Rao Xiaozhi’s A Cold Fish, and Lu Qingyi’s Four Springs. So much so that 2018 was aptly dubbed the “Guizhou Cinema Year”. In December 2018, newbie Guizhou director Luo Hanxing added another feature to that list. Unfortunately, his half-baked debut falls far short of the year’s earlier offerings.  

The oddly titled Uncle and House is really a brazen tale about the many strange characters that frequent a single street named Hequn Road. The leads are three young men making a living collecting debts for loan sharks. In the process, a fake 100-yuan bill comes their way before quickly being passed on to a liquor store owner, the proprietor of a hair salon, a shopkeeper at a grocer and so on, connecting the dots of a Guizhou microcosm.   

The idea of using a banknote to link up a small community, though not original, works well if handled properly. Without flushed out characters or a clear, centralizing theme, however, the 92-minute film wobbles in different directions with tangentially related scenes that form a work that can only be described as a chop suey of mini vignettes.    

For starter, the three main leads, shepherded by the character Xiao Bang (Gao Zhen), an overseas returnee, appear more like staged mannequins than real flesh-and-blood humans. Every setup seems remarkably deliberate, yet completely lacking in conflict or risks, let alone a climax or character development. The result is a running account of the three going about town as they collect debts. We meet a host of memorable figures along the way, including a derelict who receives a personally delivered takeout via phone app, a young African girl singing in perfectly accented Guizhou dialect on a flyover, and a preteen hypochondriac who thinks he’s dying from “breast cancer” because his chest won’t stop hurting. Yet these figures have nothing to do with each other and do little to help advance the plot. In the end, their inclusion feels artificial and superfluous.  

Twenty-nine-year-old Luo, who spent some time getting trained as a filmmaker at NYU, also appears to have too much to say. The film, which Douban, (China’s version of IMDB) says only took Luo seven days to write and another two weeks to shoot, feels on one level like a critique about young people lost in a society that pressures them to make lots of money under the fancy moniker of entrepreneurship. At another level, it can be seen as a meditation on life’s choices as a newly minted adult: “Do you choose your own way of living or live the way others want you to live?”

Toward the end of the film, we’re presented with a surprise meeting with a “genius” who makes counterfeit bills with 3D printing technology. The trouble is, the guy has invested too much money buying the machine and lacks the time to print the fakes before being led away by the police. The message suddenly shifts, delivered in a radio commentary: “Don’t be a polymath who commits idiotic crimes!” When you have too much to say, you end up saying nothing at all.

Luo’s film does have some saving graces.  With a touch of black humor, he pokes fun at the smoking culture of the Chinese business world and ugly manners in the age of cellphones. A movie theater scene is a case in point as a rude man insists on talking loudly on his phone during a film screening. Although totally unrelated to the main plot, it reflects a common problem in China. When our three main characters finally beat the man up in total exasperation, those of us in the audience get our own satisfaction that justice has been served. 

Luo also does a decent job conveying the stress and anxiety that young people face in China’s pressure-cooker society after the 2008 Beijing Olympics as they try to balance a life with meaning and earning good money and social respect.  At one point in the film, a jobseeker points out that ten years ago, a cigarette would burn for 12 minutes. But now, “it only lasts 5 minutes and 9 seconds to be exact.” Even cigarettes are rushing with the times, it seems.   

Uncle and House, which feels like it’s been put together in a hurry, is not for those looking forward to a thoughtful narrative of the caliber of Four Springs or Long Day’s Journey into Night. But if you’re in the mood for a good laugh, a bit of slapstick comedy with a regional flavor, then the film won’t disappoint.

Uncle and House is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 12.