Film - Back to the Wharf

With the film out tomorrow on VoD platforms, Jon B watched the Mandarin language film Back to the Wharf / 风平浪静 ...

Mainland China’s cinematic output seems to struggle in garnering western interest. Exceptions exist – Zhang Yimou and Jiang Wen’s directorial work comes to mind – but such breakthrough stories are significantly rarer compared to their neighbours (i.e., South Korea and Japan). Thus, it’s always a pleasant surprise to see a Chinese production try to break the mainstream. Yet, regrettably, I feel Li Xiaofeng’s Back to the Wharf isn’t going to make any waves.

Song Ho, a straight-A student, goes from a life of middle-class mundanity to never-ending misery after he loses his school admission to a friend, Li Tang. As his enraged father leaves to confront the recipient, Ho tries to intercept him, inadvertently stumbling upon the wrong address and causing a misunderstanding-turned-murder; exacerbated once his father makes the same mistake and finishes what his son started to avoid prosecutions. Conversation could easily prevent such a debacle, but I suspected this to be the point: traumatic events are the result of senseless, impulsive human error. However, this becomes less plausible when the police inexplicably ignore fingerprint evidence and the investigation is practically dropped, despite making televised news. Ho simply flees town, and all is forgotten. This was the first scent of a questionable writing standard that, in time, becomes pungent.

After fifteen years of being a fugitive blue-collar worker, Ho returns to his hometown to mourn the death of his divorced mother. He’s coincidentally greeted by a classmate, Pan Xiaoshuang, at the toll booth, who drops plot exposition and possesses fervid romantic interest in him. After enduring beratement from his father that his upbringing was a “failure” – stating he has no place in his new household – Ho stays in his old family apartment which, presumably, will be sold after his stay in town. Matters become complicated when we’re introduced to Wan Xiaoning, the orphan daughter of the aforementioned murder victim, residing in a house soon to be destroyed by Ho’s old friend, Li Tang, now a greedy real-estate entrepreneur. Ho attempts to reconcile with Xiaoning, and while their rapport is initially uncomfortable – with her scolding him as a pervert yet maintaining his company – the groundwork is ripe for a story of atonement and recompense al-a Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, despite a flimsy catalyst.

This is where Back to the Wharf narratively disintegrates. To call it the crash of spinning plates is an understatement; it’s more akin to leaving the plates mid-spin to focus on ball-juggling, failing at it, then attempting card tricks, failing at that, then giving up entirely, all while the plates have shattered hours ago. The prior narrative foundations are put on-hold while Song Ho meanders from one dismal sequence to the next, the first being perhaps the most misguided, unpleasant on-screen relationship I’ve seen in recent memory.

Ho, intent on leaving town, has his car wrecked by Pan Xiaoshuang at the border crossing – staged to be a gate malfunction. This forces him to accept a dinner date, in which we see her repeatedly attempt conversation with him while he rejects each advance, re-iterating “I’m not interested” and “I’m not ready” in a dozen concise ways. This doesn’t dissuade her; she remembers his address since childhood – despite them not being close – and invites herself in, eventually resorting to straddling him without consent. Thus, he resigns himself; next thing we know, they’re getting married, she’s pregnant, and the story continues with little insight into her character beyond that, other than the fact she’s – supposedly – maintained her love for him over fifteen years. If this was presented as inherently negative, it would work on a pessimistic level; Ho is damaged and emotionally numb, therefore easy to exploit. However, the film conveys this as something natural and positive; it comes off as despicable for Xiaoshuang and tone-deaf for the writers. The film blub markets her methods as “taming the crashing waters between the surface”, yet all we’re presented with is an emotionally juvenile woman brute-forcing her way into someone’s life out of raw ego, despite lack of chemistry and explicit protests. No one should harass their way into a relationship, especially with someone vulnerable and visibly traumatised. At best, consider it a poor attempt at shoehorning “emotional weight” into the narrative.

The remainder of the film wavers between filler and frustration. Ho kills time getting re-acquainted with Li Tang and his father, the former offering him a job which he perpetually ums-and-ahs about. Xiaoshuang is promptly removed from the story in a second-act twist that exchanges mystery – and common-sense – for melodrama. The third act sleepwalks through more non-eventful timewasting before Ho loses his temper at the most inconvenient interval, accomplishing nothing before stumbling into an ending which, again, accomplishes very little but contrived theatrics – breaking some character consistency to do so. A credits blurb fills in the gaps, which wouldn’t be an issue if said gaps weren’t imperative to the story, such as villain comeuppance and narrative closure. It feels like a cop-out; a poor wrap-up for beats they couldn’t work into the script.

It's a damn shame as the cast do their best with the material, especially Zhang Yu as Song Ho. His performance is delightfully unconventional, balancing despondency with fracturing stoicism; the portrait of a man who’s bottled up irrepressible trauma for too long. It makes the ending hurt knowing nothing is learned nor alleviated for him; just obliteration of a soul surrounded by egocentric scumbags. In a more coherent film, it could be profound.

Sincerely, I wanted to like Back to the Wharf. It’s well-shot and well-performed, but narrative is king, in which the film is a stew of exasperating tedium and dreary flapdoodle. The squandered potential incites a wince, along with a dozen questions about what Li Xiaofeng was thinking. As is, I’d encourage spending your two hours musing on something more productive.

Review © Jon B 2023 All rights reserved

Find Jon on Letterboxd at

Image - Red Water Entertainment

Back to the Wharf is available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, iNDemand and DISH, starting January 17th, 2023.
Powered by Blogger.