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A damning meditation on money-lending culture in the remote city of Wu Hai, nestled in the far-flung deserts of Inner Mongolia - from the San Sebastian Film Festival

Money, money, money, money. Money! Too much and you got problems. Not enough and you’ll have more. Itinerant Yang Hua (Xuan Huang) is skirting the breadline, having exploited his entire world in the pursuit of riches. His dream theme Dinosaur Park languishes in disrepair and the wolves are literally camping at his door. Bad choices follow.

Whilst the apartment in Wu Hai (a city in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China) itself has been re-mortgaged, homelife, too, is at risk and his marriage with Miao Wei (Zishan Yang) is strained to breaking. Theirs is a princess and pauper tale and her monied parents constantly look down upon their union, berating Yang for his poorer background and lack of business acumen. Their combative dismissals of him help explain his later actions – hound a man with a label for long enough and he will come to believe it. With diminished options, Yang ends up debt collecting for old friend and more successful entrepreneur Luo Yu. He wears a tougher face whilst recouping ‘investments’ from student debtors to assuage his own creditors in turn.

If the events of this film are drawn from real life experiences, this kind of loansharking is acceptable and widespread in Wu Hai, taking place in back alleys and boardrooms alike. Director Ziyang Zhou’s feelings on the practice are unambiguous; the film is a damning indictment and shows nothing but negative consequences for all characters engaged in the practice. Clandestine video footage of Yang and Miao at the height of their love shows how the promise and optimism of youth can be corrupted in this world.

The cold reality and deprivations of greed are heightened against the dreamlike imagery of the city hinterlands. Wu Hai, Inner Mongolia, is bounded by the placid, reflective Yellow River and lunar-esque deserts. A giant head of Genghis Khan keeps watch from the mountains. Frequent shots show Yang as isolated and alone in this seemingly alien world, accentuated by the eerie lighting of dusk and dawn. Zhou knowingly plays this up with a yurt-based resort of geometric domes, looking nothing more like some off-world colony. Pacing of the film is languorous to match these surreal moments. It’s a mood piece that shuffles along as dejectedly as its protagonist. Some things take time to come into focus. Blurred sequences that resolve sharply, much like the overall film.

Wu Hai has just premiered at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.

By Charles Williams - 24-09-2020

Charles Williams is a researcher in San Sebastián, Spain. Consumption of popular media and food are two major hobbies, leading to review writing as a further pastime. His film tastes are varied, from...

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