Chinese film “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” will haunt you with its gritty noir tale drenched in lots of palpable summer heat and humidity. I must tell you that you may often get quite confused due to its rather convoluted plot which does not explain much to us even in the end, but, as many of you know well, that comes with its genre territory, and you can just simply go along with its distinctive mood and style to be savored and appreciated.
After the odd opening scene featuring one big cow, the movie goes straight into its plain hero’s unexpected big problem. During one hot summer night in Guangzhou, China, Wang Xueming (Eddie Peng), a poor young man working as an air conditioner repair guy, is driving his shabby van for a movie date with his girlfriend, but then his van happens to hit something on the road shortly after he is distracted by that big cow. It looks like Wang unintentionally ran over some guy, and, because this guy in question seems to be dead and nobody happens to be around them at the spot, Wang hurriedly disposes of this guy’s body and then quickly leaves the scene.
However, as days go by, Wang finds himself bothered more by his growing guilt and regret, and then he subsequently comes across that dead man’s wife, Mrs. Liang (Sylvia Chang), by coincidence. While fixing the air conditioner of her little apartment as requested by her, he comes to care sincerely about Mrs. Liang, and he becomes all the more conflicted when Mrs. Liang is in a serious trouble because of her husband. It turns out that her husband was involved with some nasty local criminals, and now they demand that she should pay her husband’s debt as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the situation surrounding Wang and Mrs. Liang turns out to be much more complicated than it seemed at first. Once the body of Mrs. Liang’s husband is found, the police investigation naturally follows, and a local detective assigned to the case instinctively senses that there is something suspicious about it. In addition, Wang comes upon a certain small item while looking around the spot where the body was eventually discovered, and this item may help Mrs. Liang getting out of her current problem, but Wang soon finds himself in a serious danger as trying to fix the problem for her.
As Wang struggles more and more along the story, the screenplay by director Shipei Wen and his three co-writers often catches us off guard while shifting from one viewpoint to another. In case of one particular sequence later in the story, the movie seems to go in one direction along with Wang at first, but then it suddenly changes its course as presenting the circumstance again via some other main character’s perspective, and we become more aware of how murky the situation is for everyone involved with it in one way another.
This is pretty confusing for us at times, and I must confess that I am not that sure about whether I really understand everything in the story (Please don’t ask me about how one certain bag comes to arrive at its ultimate destination, for example), but I did not mind at all during my viewing at least. After all, chaos and confusion have always been time-honored genre elements of noir films, and many solid noir films can actually get away with a lot of chaos and confusion – as long as they keep floating with style and mood.
And I assure you that “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is equipped with plenty of style and mood right from the beginning. While its daytime scenes are constantly drenched in the tangible sense of heat and humidity, its nocturnal scenes are often gritty and striking with its dexterous utilization of lights and shadows, and Wen and his several cinematographers did a commendable job of immersing us into the vivid and realistic atmosphere of their movie. In my humble opinion, their overall result is as impressive as Diao Yinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake” (2019), and Wen, who previously debuted with his short film “A Short Film About Nothing” (2017), surely demonstrates here that he is another new talented Chinese filmmaker to watch.
The main cast members of the movie are convincing as human figures really inhabiting inside their shabby world. While Eddie Peng earnestly holds the center as your typical flawed noir film hero driven by fear and guilt, Sylvia Chang, whom I recently watched in Edward Yang’s “That Day, on the Beach” (1983), is somberly graceful in her unadorned natural performance, and these two very different performers deftly handle those tentative moments between them without any misstep. Peng and Chang are also surrounded by several good performers to notice; Wang Yanhui holds his own small place well as the aforementioned local detective in the story, and Zhang Yu has a small showstopper moment when his supporting character performs a well-known American classic pop song from which the English title of the movie comes.
In conclusion, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” may require you some patience due to its slow narrative pacing as well as its adamantly murky plot, but it is still worthwhile to watch as a competent genre piece which has enough mood and style to engage us during its 95-minute running time. Although I am not totally enthusiastic about it, this is a solid feature debut for Wen nonetheless, and I guess I can have some expectation on whatever will come next from him.