The Village Of No Return (Jian wang cun)

Taiwan/China (2017) Dir. Chen Yu-hsun

Memories are an important part of our lives. We can bask in the fond glow of the good or learn from the mistakes of the bad. But if someone offered you the chance to wipe away those negative memories would you take it? You probably would but then the question you have to ask is, what is in it for them? Yes, there is always a catch.

At the turn of the 20th century as China was becoming a republic, the greedy warlord Rock Peeler (Eric Tsang) learns of treasures buried in the grounds of the remote Desire Village that will make him more powerful. Having hired nefarious bandits the Cloud Clan as his muscle, Rock has bribed one of the villagers, Big Pie (Ban Zan) to set the trap into motion.

Back at the village the chief (Ku Pao-ming) announces a train station being built will make them all rich. That night during a big feast, a Taoist monk named Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan) arrives, boasting his machine the Worry Ridder will remove everyone’s worries. It does this by erasing their memories, but only one person, Big Pie’s bullied wife Autumn (Shu Qi) resists this offer, leaving the fate of the village in her hands.

It takes a while to reveal itself but this is actually a satire on political manipulation of the feeble-minded while also boasting a simpler message of the importance of memories to our identities. Perhaps it is because Chinese comedies often work on a different level to western humour that this often appears more arcane than relatable, unless they resort to passé and embarrassing base material which also fails.

Getting to the point is another major pitfall of Chinese cinema, with too much time spent laying on the garnish before actually serving up the meat. Following the story here would be much easier if the salient points and integral characters were introduced in the first half hour instead of randomly spread across 60-plus minutes.

They may have established that Big Pie is an illiterate lump of gristle but not so much his relevance to the village at first, while Rock Peeler’s malevolent credentials are subtly delineated by two kites made of human flesh flying in the wind. From here, it would have been wise to establish the Cloud Clan as the active antagonists, but instead we get a forty-minute farcical set-up of Tien’s bid for control.

Forced to marry Big Pie against her will, Autumn is understandably despondent at being chained to a stove in a grotty shack all day and considers suicide as the way out. In fact, this is more due to saving her true love, the soon to return son of the chief Dean (Tony Yang), from seeing her married to Big Pie when they were destined to wed before Dean was sent away.

However, Big Pie dies after ingesting poison and when Tien eventually uses his Worry Ridder on everyone, he uses just enough on Autumn to make her his wife. As the now deified Village Chief, Tien controls the people with daily memory wipes as they willingly work themselves to the bone under his instruction, some of them even unable to recall their own names, to find another hidden treasure in the village, the Soul Restorer.

No doubt plenty of governments and rulers worldwide would kill for a memory-wiping device – the Tories definitely would! A steampunk creation of sorts, the Worry Ridder is a metal dome that fits over the head, with two hands shaped levers on the sides, mini eye-viewer on the top and tiny chambers into which worms are placed and store removed memories as small cocoons. No prizes for guessing what the Soul Restorer does.

Through Autumn’s semi-controlled state, her niggling curiosity about her newfound happy life sows the seeds for what eventually evolves into a people’s uprising against their venal master. In this instance Tien is a totem for personality driven manipulation over solid policies, contrasting Rock Peeler’s tyranny by force and fear, but the lie can only last for so long but the people on top always fail to understand this.

Plenty more happens through this film, including the antics of the Cloud Clan, an bizarre acapella singing group of mercenaries fronted by portly postmistress Dark Cloud (Lin Mei-hsiu), providing some very black humour to the proceedings, along with perhaps its greatest visual triumph, a very arty slow-motion martial arts fight contested in a huge cloud of flour that would make Wong Kar-wai cry with envy.

Given the nature of the story it doesn’t lend itself to a grand presentation but Chen Yu-hsun has gone out all out to make this as pleasurable for the eye as possible (and I’m not just talking about Shu Qi either). Sumptuously shot with one glorious tableau after another of the various landscapes and sets, the camerawork is exceedingly glossy, which helps negate the expected melancholy for something lighter to facilitate the satirical content.

Everyone is typically committed to their roles and often play it for laughs even when it is supposed to be straight, the exception being the turning point in the final act when the walls of pathos come tumbling down around our mischievous manipulators. The female presence is extremely lacking – perhaps because Shu Qi is the marquee name here – but their characters are the strongest and ultimately heroic, a rarity in Chinese cinema.

One’s enjoyment of this film will depend entirely on how quickly it takes for the story and it intentions to sink in. Watched purely as a zany Chinese comedy a lot of the humour won’t work, the haphazard approach to plot structure likely to render this as a series of goofy distractions with no direction.

At its most fundamental, The Village Of No Return does in fact have plenty to offer in terms of entertainment and provocative socio-political commentary, but one does have to work hard to piece it all together and find the rewards.