Friday April 20, 2001

     It's not surprising to read that Chinese director Wang Xiao-shuai has won the admiration of such idiosyncratic filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Atom Egoyan. A member of the country's so-called sixth generation of filmmakers (a group of the more recent Beijing Film Academy graduates), Xiaoshuai made a pair of films, "The Days" and "Frozen," without government approval. He then embarked on a three-year struggle with the Beijing Film Studio censors to get a green light on "So Close to Paradise" (1998), which did get a limited release in China in a heavily reedited version--and which now opens in Los Angeles in a version that seems notable for its candor.
     In essence "So Close to Paradise" is a film noir, set in central China in the city of Wuhan. With the People's Republic undergoing wrenching economic development, Wuhan has attracted many young people from rural areas seeking to make their fortune. Among them are the film's hero Dong Zi (Shi Yu), a quiet youth who has a grueling, poorly paying job as a dock laborer. He has been befriended by a man from his hometown, Gao Ping (Guo Tao), not much older than he but already a cynical con man with a sharp wardrobe. He's kind to Dong Zi and allows him to live with him in his crummy apartment.
     When Gao Ping is cheated out of some money he decides to kidnap a sultry young nightclub singer, Ruan Hong (Wang Tong), to force her to tell him the whereabouts of the culprit. Gao Ping manages to turn the abduction into a seduction, but when he gets the information from Ruan Hong he gets in over his head, coming up against a ruthless and reprehensible underworld kingpin (Wu Tao).
     In the meantime, government TV is helping launch a doctrinaire and sanctimonious campaign against prostitution to which Ruan Hong is vulnerable because she is singing in a dubious karaoke club that clearly is also a brothel. These developments stun Dong Zi, who has silently fallen in love with Ruan Hong.
     "So Close to Paradise" unfolds with such ease and in so low a key it becomes one of those films that sneaks up on you. The result is a film that is wise, fatalistic and romantic in just the right proportions--in the best noir tradition.


So Close to Paradise, 2001. Unrated. An Empire Pictures release of a co-production of the Beijing Film Studio and Beijing Goldenplate Film, TV and Art Production Co., in association with Beijing Pegase Cultural Communication Center. Director Wang Xiaoshuai. Executive producers Zhang Gonggu, Li Xiaogeng. Screenplay by Wang Xiaoshuai, Pang Ming. Cinematographer Yang Tao. Editors Liu Fang, Yang Hong Yu. Music Liu Lin. Art director Li Wei. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Shi Yu as Dong Zi. Wang Tong as Ruan Hong. Guo Tao as Gao Ping. Wu Tao as Su Wu.