Director Wen Shipei’s debut feature Are You Lonesome Tonight?, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, is an impressive neo-noir thriller starring Eddie Peng and Sylvia Chang. Peng plays Xueming, an air-conditioner repairman in a southern Chinese city. When we meet him, he is being released from prison; the rest of the film takes place years earlier, in the hot summer of 1997, when he is responsible for a hit-and-run motor accident. A water buffalo escapes its farm and lays in the middle of a road, in what could be a heavy-handed metaphor in a different movie. Driving to meet his girlfriend for a movie, Xueming detours around the animal and soon, glancing at his pager, hits and kills a man named Liang. Beset with guilt, he seeks out the widow Mrs. Liang (Chang) and insinuates himself into her life. It soon appears that Liang had shady dealings involving gangsters and a large sum of money, and Xueming may not be solely responsible for his death.
What develops is a moody, suspenseful thriller, with Xueming investigating Liang’s death while playing cat-and-mouse with his killers. All the while, a canny detective (Wang Yanhui) is on the trail of both Xueming and the killers. There are some exciting set pieces, like a car chase leading to a confrontation in an alley and another nighttime scene set in a street market after hours. Although he gives us atmospheric neon-lit sequences like these, with one or two exceptions the director doesn’t indulge in needless stylization. The film shows a more varied world, full of everyday living spaces and textures. Accordingly, the claustrophobic scenario opens up to a broader range of concerns and outcomes. We know that Xueming will go to prison, but this turns out not to be the story of how he gets caught. Instead, it’s a gangster film about illicit dealings and consequences, effectively grafted onto the straightforward story about atonement.
If some things remain unknown or unknowable at the story’s end, maybe this is how Wen Shipei conceives of the territory. In the film’s press kit, he has written about how his father was a small-time criminal in the 1990s. At least one scene in the film appears to draw on a personal experience during Wen’s childhood, which he credits with helping him to understand moral complexity.
Neo-noir films often flaunt an amoral, nihilistic worldview. Just as often, it seems to me that this worldview disguises a real moralism, either tinged with a heaven-and-hell sort of religiosity or just feigned in the interest of sensationalism. Many of these films seem to aspire to be Taxi Driver, the superior 1976 film that also wanted to have it both ways: sober realism and religious iconography at the same time. But Hollywood film noir of the 1940s was more varied. Sometimes, a cool-headed realism offered amoral thrills or bolstered a film’s romanticism, but in other films it opened the way for moral engagement. Are You Lonesome Tonight? has more in common with the latter type of movie.
It also takes its place alongside some memorable recent crime films from China, like Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake and Lou Ye’s The Shadow Play. Recent Chinese film often seems divided between art-house fare and commercial pop cinema, with little contact between the two. Some art films have broken new ground and are, to my mind, among the most important movies of the past decade. But each sort of film usually benefits from contact with the other, and these neo-noir genre films may be a site where a hybrid commercial and artistic film culture is developing.
One of the things that makes Are You Lonesome Tonight? work is a performance by Eddie Peng that reveals enough about Xueming for us to make sense of what he’s doing, without telegraphing his thoughts or motives. Why, for instance, does he leave the police station after beginning to turn himself in? How should we understand his strange, nightmarish vision of humanity in the police station? And what does he hope to accomplish by befriending Mrs. Liang? There is enough evidence for audiences to think about, but the film doesn’t offer ready answers.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect. I wish we had a fuller sense of Xueming’s life and social relations. What we do see is his girlfriend, who complains that he’s behaving typically when he doesn’t apologize for missing their date. This tells us something about his tendency to keep things to himself; maybe it even suggests that he’s not quite at home in conventional society. The girlfriend has no more role to play, though. A few flashbacks also break with the movie’s tone: they show characters revisiting what happened, trying to understand what they overlooked. But the exaggerated camera movements belong to no possible human observer, and these showy sequences would be more suited to a puzzle-box movie like the recent Hidden Blade.
There are plenty of other surprises that are less forced, and sometimes they dawn on you belatedly. Like the water buffalo, characters in this film act from inner necessity, but character and circumstance don’t detract from the moral weight of consequences. Audiences who don’t read Chinese will be spared a text that ties everything up and explains how responsible citizens did their duty and the police resolved the case. The movie itself leaves some troubling ends loose, though. It has no reservations about Xueming satisfying the public forms of responsibility for his crime. But it’s more interested in the private supplements to the official story.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? 热带往事 is available to stream on multiple platforms through Film Movement Plus, https://www.filmmovement.com/are-you-lonesome-tonight.