Wisdom Tooth (China, 2019)

“The sky was blue, the air was good and life was slow and easy …” This is Wisdom Tooth director Liang Ming’s recollection of his childhood in northeast province of Heilongjiang in the 1960s. Thirty years on however, there was a definite decline in the region when people found it particularly difficult to adapt to structural reforms and the country’s transition from a planned to market economy. Property became expensive and jobs hard to get. The region in the 1990s is the backdrop of Wisdom Tooth, a coming-of-age drama in which Liang explores a brother-sister relationship with a very unexpected angle.  

Guxi (Lu Xingchen) and her brother Gulian (Wu Xiaoliang) live in a makeshift shack in the coastal town of Donggang, Liaoning Province. They lead a frugal existence but take care of each other emotionally and financially; Guxi works as a hotel maid whilst her brother is a local fisherman. However, their lives are plunged into uncertainty when an oil spill threatens Gulian’s livelihood and he gets involved with the local mob.

In the opening scene at a bathhouse, the blurred lines of sibling intimacy are in full display as Gulian washes his sister’s back, leaving the viewer bemused and perplexed. It’s there that they meet Qingchang (Wang Jiajia), a bright and charismatic young women. The trio becomes entangled in a bizarre love triangle with Guxi’s sexual feelings for her brother ultimately coming to the surface, while she is ambivalent about her attraction to Qingchang. This is where the director operates best. He skilfully reveals the slow change in how Guxi views the world as she enters adulthood. With the transition of seasons from summer to a moody autumn and a spectacular winter snowscape, affection and flirtation turn into love and sexual discovery. Ding Ke’s score adds a layer of passion and mournfulness to the drama while cinematographer He Shan takes full advantage of the northeast winter landscapes.

Wisdom Tooth recalls Derek Tsang’s recent feature Better Days (2019) in which the perspective of the protagonist is captured through an intimate viewfinder as complex facets of her personality begin to emerge. Although some similarities can be drawn from the way both films treat the brutal passing of youth, Liang’s scenario is much more mature, as is his approach to depicting emotion and sensuality. There is no need here for the melodramatic scenes of Better Days to convey feelings as Liang has a more sophisticated approach. Through his own admission, he learned a lot about character development while working as an actor and assistant director on Lou Ye’s films Suzhou River (2000), Spring Fever (2009) and Love and Bruises (2011).

The film’s international title refers to Guxi’s toothache, caused by a wisdom tooth piercing her gum. It was chosen for the overseas market because of its connotation with the pains of growing up and the maturity it represents. Authentic details give Liang’s debut feature its appeal. There are bars filled with cigarette smoke, portable cassette players and other memorabilia of a bygone era. But most importantly, the casting choices and resulting performances are flawless.

Lu and Wang both shine in their character portrayals (Wu won Best Actor at the Macau International Movie Festival) while Wang is outstanding. Looking modern and sexy, Qingchang is like a breath of fresh air in the drab industrial surroundings. Her family is wealthy and she is able to help Gulian find a job as a security guard. As an interesting cultural aside, we find out that her mother is from South Korea. There is a strong Korean ethnic group living in Jilin, Heilongjiang and Liaoning Province who can make money from working in South Korea.  Qingchang has been there with her family and brought back modern clothes, which she shares with Guxi. She has also acquired self-confidence and a sophisticated facade from having been to a “land afar”.

Lengthy dream sequences meant to impart another dimension of Guxi’s emotional state prove a distraction from the main story. The film also has a less satisfying sub-plot involving the discovery of a dead body and a compromising recorded conversation that is not fully explored, leaving the viewer to become engrossed in the relationships. Perhaps this is what Liang intended. An unraveling cassette tape is a perfect metaphor for Guxi’s destiny.

Liang’s impulse to create Wisdom Tooth stemmed partly from nostalgia for the northeast of 1990s China and also from a desire to express concern for the living conditions of the people he fondly remembers from childhood. His success lies not only in his approach to detail but also in his deep understanding of individual mindscapes.