Film Threat (July 2019): Absurd Accident, Bored in the USA, Hurry Slowly, and Low Flyers

(NOTE: These reviews were all initially written for another site. Here are links to the original reviews.)

Image courtesy of Cheng Cheng Films.

Absurd Accident

** ½ (out of 4)

Li Yuhe’s Absurd Accident vividly, ironically illustrates the idea that dramatic events can originate from the most seemingly trivial of problems. At the film’s start, the protagonist, a middle-aged Chinese man named Yang Baiwan (Chen Xixu), is desperately looking for a cure to his sexual impotence – and his failure in this regard has left him hypersensitive to everything related to sex. So when he hears rumors that his wife, a noodle maker named Ma Lilian (Gao Ye), is cheating on him, he automatically assumes they’re true, and he resolves to kill her in revenge.

The problem for Yang, however, is that he isn’t exactly cut out for killing: as Ma notes, even the thought of squishing ants on the ground makes him queasy. Because of this, Yang decides to outsource the job, asking a shady friend named Bi Jianxiao (Cao Rui) to hire someone who can take Ma out. After some discussion – and the transfer of a fair amount of cash on Yang’s part – Bi and Yang eventually settle on a plan. Yang will drug Ma, place her in her bedroom, and go somewhere else for the night in order to give himself an alibi. Afterwards, using a key that Yang gave to Bi, Bi’s hitman will enter the house and kill Ma in her sleep.

That night, Yang successfully carries out his part of the plan. But while waiting at a friend’s place, he suddenly comes to his senses – and realizes that he might just have been jumping to conclusions regarding his wife’s infidelity. Subsequently, in the desperate hope that he can still call off Ma’s murder, he frantically drives back to their house. When he arrives, however, Ma is nowhere to be seen, and Bi’s apparently dead body is lying outside on the ground – a bizarre set of circumstances that leave Yang with absolutely no idea as to what happened or what he should do next.

The first half-hour of Absurd Accident is enough by itself to make the entire film worth watching. In the tradition of Chinese writers like Lu Xun, Li offers a hilarious – but mercilessly scathing – depiction of modern-day China. Forget what you’ve heard about it being the “next superpower”: the China we see in Absurd Accident is a country that’s characterized by shameless venality, rampant materialism, and gaping inequalities between the city and countryside. In a delightfully satirical depiction of toxic masculinity, moreover, the men in Absurd Accident are portrayed as egotists who display an unhealthy obsession with sexual dominance.

Sadly, however, Absurd Accident becomes a lot less thoughtful after the scene where Yang discovers Bi’s body. As Yang frantically tries to figure out what to do with the corpse, the movie turns away from satire and becomes a standard suspense thriller. Everything about it, to be sure, is very well-made, and Li plays with narrative chronology in a way that fans of Quentin Tarantino will love. But ultimately, the latter two-thirds of the film lack the bite and sociopolitical insight that make the first third such a compelling watch.

Beyond these general issues, there’s also a particular scene towards the end of the film that feels tonally off. I don’t want to go into spoilers, but in essence, what happens is that a man tries to rape a woman. Inexplicably, however, Li chooses to make light of this moment, treating the attempt as a comical accident instead of a gross act of misogyny. In a film that otherwise spares no effort to call men out on their narcissism and fixation with sex, this moment feels uncharacteristically, tastelessly nonchalant in its outlook.

Still, despite its various flaws, Absurd Accident hardly qualifies as a bad film. Say what you want about the film’s content, but Li is undeniably a very skillful director, one who displays an impressive command of both narrative structure and film style. And its lapses in tone and substance aside, the film generally proves quite entertaining, to the point that you’ll never feel remotely bored when watching it. As his directorial debut, this film is a clear sign that Li will be “one to watch” in the years to come.

Image courtesy of Mike Finazzo.

Bored in the USA

*** (out of 4)

In the news media, Baltimore is frequently cast as a city riven by racial divisions and inequality. As though to provide an antidote to this bad press, Mike Finazzo’s Bored in the USA elects to make the Charm City the setting for an endearing love story. The two lovers in question are Kelly (Kelly Lloyd), a housewife who likes to watch old movies, and Chris (Chris Milner), an Englishman who works with Kelly’s husband at some unspecified company.

In terms of its plot, the film begins when Chris and Kelly bump into each other at a café. Out of boredom, they decide to spend the rest of the day doing things together around Baltimore, like seeing an old movie (Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday) and visiting the city’s Graffiti Alley. Gradually, the two of them bond over their shared unhappiness with life. Kelly is tired of her marriage and stay-at-home lifestyle, while in his efforts to advance his career, Chris has never had the chance to, as he puts it, “actually stop and appreciate” things in life.

Neither of them openly admits it, but by the end of their day together, Kelly and Chris have clearly fallen in love with one another. What makes their situation tragic, however, is that they’re unable to act on their feelings. Leaving aside the fact that Kelly is married, Chris happens to be moving back to England the next day. And worse yet for Kelly, he also has a fiancée there.

In portraying the development of Kelly and Chris’ relationship, Bored in the USA occasionally becomes ham-fisted. In one scene, for instance, Kelly’s feelings for Chris are illustrated by a shot in which she imagines herself running over to Chris and kissing him. Given that we’ve previously had to glean their feelings from subtle details – glances, smiles,  silences – this shot feels rather blatant, a moment that breaks with the film’s otherwise understated approach.

Beyond its heavy-handed aspects, however, the bigger problem with Bored in the USA is that it isn’t exactly original. Specifically, Bored in the USA is in many respects what Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset would’ve looked like if it had been set in Baltimore instead of Paris. Both films are about two unhappy people who meet and connect over an extremely brief period of time. Both films have ambiguous endings. Both films rely on long takes. And so on.

Still, Finazzo’s imitation of Before Sunset is so well-made that in the moment, it ends up being just as engrossing as Before Sunset itself. The script has the kind of dialogue that you’d imagine actual couples would say. And more importantly, Lloyd and Milner make an excellent on-screen pairing, to the point that by the end, you’ll be left with a burning desire to find out what happens to their characters next. When a film has the kind of acting and writing that Bored in the USA does, in short, it somehow doesn’t matter that we’ve seen it all before.

Image courtesy of Vesterhavet.

Hurry Slowly

** (out of 4)

Anders Emblem’s Hurry Slowly follows Fiona (Amalie Ibsen Jensen) and Tom (David Jakobsen), two young adult siblings who live on an island off the coast of Norway. The younger of the two, Tom suffers from a form of autism that leaves him unable to take care of himself. Since their parents and grandparents are all dead – for reasons that are hinted at but never fully explained – Fiona has been Tom’s legal guardian for several years.

Plotwise, Hurry Slowly is the textbook definition of a slice-of-life film. In it, the only thing that really “happens” is that Tom turns 18, which means that Fiona will be able to send him to a care home and live on her own. Otherwise, the film simply depicts Fiona and Tom as they go about their daily routines. Among other things, we see that Fiona works on a ferry, that she bikes a very long distance in order to get to work, and that she enjoys playing the guitar in her free time.

In keeping with its narrative’s bare-bones nature, moreover, the formal elements of Hurry Slowly evoke a feeling of directionlessness. Generally immobile, the camera frequently relies on long takes and long shots that convey both a sense of desolation and the slowness of time. Additionally, to accentuate the story’s slice-of-life feel, the film does not contain any kind of background score, and the script has next to no dialogue.

What’s ultimately frustrating about Hurry Slowly, however, is that it’s hard to figure out what Emblem is getting at with this depiction of directionlessness. What exactly is he trying to capture? The emotional effects of Fiona’s transition from caretaker to independent adult? A kind of overarching ennui? The languor that inevitably comes with summer? The loneliness of a life spent in physical and emotional isolation? For the most part, it simply isn’t clear what we’re supposed to get from this portrayal of Fiona and Tom.

Meanwhile, the other issue with Hurry Slowly concerns its attitude towards Tom. Generally speaking, the film is more interested in depicting Fiona’s worldview than Tom’s: in other words, you could say that Fiona is the protagonist, while Tom plays a merely supporting role. Partially as a result of this, Tom becomes a two-dimensional character. Instead of treating him as a complex individual with a unique and meaningful perspective on the world, the film depicts him as a “poor boy” who merits our pity, an approach that feels a tad condescending.

All that said, however, I’d still say that Hurry Slowly is worth a watch. For one, its portrayal of Fiona and Tom’s daily life proves oddly, unexpectedly mesmerizing: as opaque as it often is, it’s still an effective and very well-made contribution to the slice of life genre. And if nothing else, Jensen gives a good performance, one that avoids emoting in favor of careful understatement. Hurry Slowly won’t leave you awestruck, but its best parts ensure that you won’t be totally disappointed.

Low Flyers

* (out of 4)

In Adam Starks’ Low Flyers, Ted (Starks), Harry (Joshua Copeland), Rory (Alexander Tannahill), and Tom (Kieran Donnelly) are four English students who’re textbook illustrations of what it means to be a “bum.” Aside from being virtually penniless, the four of them are unabashedly lazy: when we first meet them, one of them brags about getting D’s because “I don’t even try, yet I still manage to pass.” Moreover, the four of them are also somewhat dim, the kind of people who can be tricked into believing that there’s such a thing as “Welsh dollars.”

At the film’s start, these four friends decide to take a road trip through Great Britain, ostensibly out of a desire to go camping and visit historical sites. To nobody’s surprise but their own, however, this trip quickly goes awry. Despite their stated desire to go camping, the only tent the four guys pack is a tiny one made for six-year-olds. Their attempts to flirt with girls, moreover, invariably prove unsuccessful. And as you might expect, these guys’ slow-wittedness gets them into a fair amount of trouble: at one point, for instance, they get locked inside a freezing-cold gymnasium that has no heating.

As you ought to have figured out by now, Low Flyers is meant to be a road trip comedy. What prevents it from being effective, however, is the pettiness and mean-spiritedness of its humor. A fair number of the jokes are the kind of toilet humor you see in kids’ films. And those that aren’t are often made at the expense of at least one of the characters, focusing on how stupid or incurably foolish said character (or characters) is. All of this not only makes the film’s humor rather lame, but it also makes the overall film feel rather condescending.

What’s especially egregious about Low Flyers, moreover, is the way in which it portrays its female characters. Invariably caricatures, the girls that Ted, Harry, Rory, and Tom meet on the trip have no agency whatsoever. In other words, it often feels like the girls’ only purpose in the film is to give the four guys something to fight over or make jokes about. Because of this, Low Flyers at some points comes close to feeling like a “boys will be boys” film, one that excuses boorishness and objectification for the purposes of entertainment.

On the whole, I wouldn’t say that Low Flyers is completely lacking as a film. This will probably be familiar to UK viewers, but as an American, I did get something out of the film’s depiction of the cultural and historical differences between England, Wales, and Scotland. In a way, Ted, Harry, Rory, and Tom exhibit what you could call “English privilege,” a sense of superiority that allows them to run roughshod over the unique culture and identity of Great Britain’s non-English regions.

That said, however, I really can’t think of anything else that’s worth appreciating in Low Flyers. In its primary objective – namely, being funny – the film largely fails, using a brand of humor that’s both crass and demeaning. And when you consider that Starks doesn’t really develop any of the characters – even the four protagonists lack depth, to say nothing of the female characters – this is also a film in which you barely feel any form of emotional investment. Starks is apparently planning to make a sequel to this film, but unless he does a complete 180, it’s hard to see how a second installment would be any better than the mess he’s given us here.