Godspeed (Yi lu shun feng)

Taiwan (2016) Dir. Chung Mong-hong

Michael Hui is one the biggest names in Hong Kong comedy, his heyday being in the 70’s and 80’s, but over the last decade is film work has slowed down a little. This black comedy from Taiwanese director Chung Mong-hong puts Hui firmly back in the cinematic limelight.

Drug dealer Ah Bao (Leon Dai) endures a hellacious trip to Thailand, barely escaping with his life let alone the drugs his Thai contacts were offering him. Ah Bao hopes to sell the drugs to his gangster friend Brother Tou (Tou Chung-hua) in south Taiwan so he hires tubby unemployed car thief Nadow (Na Dow) to act his deliveryman.

Waiting for a cab, Nadow reluctantly finds himself accepting a ride from Old Xu (Michael Hui) an ex-pat from Hong Kong down on his luck after 20 years in Taiwan. Hitting the road the duo encounter a number of awkward situations en route to Na Dow’s drop off destination but this turns out to be the tip of the iceberg when the delivery takes an unexpected turn.

Godspeed is being sold as a black comedy but the reality is that the comedy aspect is limited to a few scenes of road movie shenanigans between Nadow and Old Xu; instead the brutality and shocking violence of the main gangster plot overshadows everything. Chung must have known what he was doing with the script, but the tonal disparity is monumental and the biggest hurdle for anyone hoping to witness a barrel of laughs here.

Ultimately this becomes a life-affirming tale about choosing the right path to follow and learning to treat people the right way for the best rewards. It may not seem like it from the above précis or the knowledge that gangsters get unspeakably violent with each other, but Chung is able to end this on a poignant and surprisingly upbeat note, not too sentimental but affecting enough.

Initially the two plot threads seem unrelated, with Nadow’s introduction not occurring until after the opening credits (which themselves don’t appear until 15 minutes in) with not a single reference, even geographically to what we had just seen with Ah Bao and Brother Tou. Nadow answers an ad for a deliveryman which sees him taking instructions via a mobile phone which become increasingly curious each time.

Old Xu’s arrival is ignored by Nadow due to his old car and the driver’s middle-aged appearance, as is his gentle smiling greeting. Old Xu practically begs Nadow to be his fare, dropping his prices and foregoing apparent statutory extras to win him over, although battering him into submission is probably a more accurate term.

No sooner have they hit the road Old Xu decides it is time to eat and pulls over at what he thinks is a café because of the queue of people waiting outside. In fact, it is a wake for an old man who passed away in the night but rather than admit their error and appear disrespectful, Old Xu pretends he knew the man. You can almost see the Farrelly Brothers doing something similar but with less tact of course.

This is key to the juxtaposition of this jarring dichotomy – the scene involving Old Xu and Nadow are played out in a restrained and low-key manner, even with the needlessly coarse language, the energy level remains tepid. Much of this is down to Old Xu doing his best to ingratiate himself to Nadow in the hopes he’ll not renege on the fare, while the sullen younger man just wants to get the job over with and be paid.

Forgive the minor spoiler but the delivery to Brother Tou, providing the much needed but as it transpires temporary convergence of the plots, ends up in violence, forcing Ah Bao to seek revenge. This is where things get nasty. The gruesome punishments meted out are minimal but this is a case of stomach churning quality over quantity.

It is hard to accept this is a black comedy when these scenes are arguably worse than any seen in a regular gangster flick, or even a horror film. There is however a brilliantly tense scene of buttock clenching proportions involving a man known as Endless Ash, through being able to smoke a cigarette to the end with a complete ash, being told to smoke and if the ash drops, he dies. It’s simple but nail biting stuff watching his shaking body jeopardise the build up of ash on his cigarette.

Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood to watch this film or maybe Chung’s sense of humour is too obscure for my tastes but as a purported comedy the laughs were negligible for me, save for a few clever sniggers here and there. It might also be that the pervasive darker tone of the gangster plot made it difficult for the humour to offer a brighter relief in the wake of the gory acts previously perpetrated.

It is not for the lack of effort on anyone’s part though – Chung’s eye for shot composition is unique, as is the use of colour to create mood and palpable sensations. The camerawork bears all the hallmarks of arthouse intimacy with mainstream glossiness, in particular the aerial shots of Taiwan’s motorway system and the various vistas the taxi passes by.

Stealing the show is Michael Hui as Old Xu, the human anchor of the entire saga. He is neither a caricature or a poorly constructed trope, Old Xu is in the wrong place in the wrong time yet keeps his head at all costs. Such restraint for a reputed comedian is rare and Hui is both a brilliant cipher and a credible catalyst in the midst of the mayhem he finds himself in.

Unfortunately I can’t claim to be on Chung’s wavelength comedy wise, but I can admire what he has done with Godspeed, recognising it as a well-made and enjoyable film, but not as a successful blending of genres.

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