North by Northeast is the second feature of controversial director Zhang Bingjian, whose works are known for exploring politically sensitive subjects, such as Chinese government corruption and propaganda.
North By Northeast, whose title is a clear reference to Hitchcock’s classic North By Northwest, takes place in 1978 China. 2 years after Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a serial rapist is on the loose in Northern China and it is up to the incompetent police captain, Captain Li and a motley crew of villagers to capture the rapist before he claims another victim.
Despite the dark story, North By Northeast is billed as a comedy. While the film does have its comedic moments, all of it is slapstick, laugh out loud moments, they aren’t as common as one would expect and the film feels like drama at times. Though these funny moments are few, the film is always compelling; each new clue or new attempt at capturing the rapist only draw the viewer more into the world, kudos to the screenplay, it is well paced and punchy enough to provide interesting dramatic set pieces between the characters as they come into conflict with one another, whether the conflict is regarding their own personal philosophies and beliefs or the method to capture the rapist.
Nevertheless, its plot always seem to threaten to steer the film into another sinister direction, as the story unfolds and the rapist claims more victims in the night. Zhang Bingjian constructs an ambitious narrative that is heavily dependent on the time of day, Captain Li and the villagers mainly operate in the day, searching for clues and footprints left in the aftermath of the crime, yet they are almost never successful, bumbling at each of their attempts.
While the night is ruled by the rapist, who commits his vile crimes and leaves the clues for the villagers to pore over the next day. Such a narrative deserves applause for even being attempted, we get essentially two films and one could respect Zhang Bingjian’s ambition to turn the darker plot into a slapstick comedy, the film still fails to entirely balance out the darker happenings of the night with the comedic incompetence in the day. This also accentuates the biggest flaw of the film, the tone fluctuates too much. We get jokes and wisecracks in one scene and a sudden cut to a tension filled rape attempt in the next. The final fifteen minutes drives the film into dark territory, as the rapist is revealed, the perverted and fractured figure is laid bare.
This identity crisis is also evident in the cinematography. Though beautiful, showcasing the lush landscapes and the diverse colour palette of rural Northern China, doing an exceptional job in telling the story. Yet, the problem with tone rears its head again, the film is shot both like a comedy and a crime thriller adding to the awkward difference in style and therefore takes the viewer out of the film to question the narrative logic.
Day sequences are lush with emphasis on wide shots to exaggerate the comedy aspect, while night sequences are intense blue-hued thrillers. There is no overall consistent visual style that unifies the entire film, what is always shown is either comedy or crime but never both at the same time; we never see the comedy of crime, or the crime of comedy.
The performances however, are the stand out of North By Northeast, they are universally good. With the two leads bringing their best, the incompetent Captain Li and the village’s livestock breeder and Cultural Revolution exile, Cai Bing. Both are a powerful contrast when they are on screen together, both represent opposing views to investigating the case and their performances not only display the character’s convictions but also the moods and thoughts of China at that moment in time.
The characters serve as reflections of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, each re-enacting to the cultural norms and mentalities of the period. Captain Li stands out as a critical look at Mao’s regime, full of himself and illogical investigative deductions; he is a buffoon who sees people as tools for his impractically large scale police operations. Much can be understood about the Cultural Revolution and its effects on China from Captain Li. In additional to those flaws, he is, for all his boisterous claims and show of authority as a police captain, sexually prude and impotent, make of that what you will. Cai Bing is the opposite, a political exile, she does not believe in the dogma and propaganda of the Communist regime, she instead relies on her knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine to investigate the rape cases, in spite of her knowledge, no one listens to her. The voice of logic that no one listens to, until it is too late.
North By Northeast has one huge problem, its indecisiveness in what kind of film it wants to be. While that is a enormous handicap, the film is bailed out by its screenplay, cinematography and characters. All of which works in tandem to provide a critical and sometimes humorous look at a time in China that is rarely explored, much less critiqued.
An extremely inconsistent but beautiful looking film that opens a window to a time in China we rarely see. At the end of the day, its pluses outweigh its minuses.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/