Vortex (Ting er zou xian)

China (2019) Dir. Jackie Gan

Quite often, the decisions we make in life are directly influenced by the sort of person we are. Someone with an addictive personality would be more likely to make rash, possibly dangerous decisions, whilst level headed people are presumed to be more rational in their choices. Unless you decide with neither your heart or your head…

Mechanic Liu Xiaojun (Da Peng) is a hopeless gambler with rising debts, his only safety net coming from money given to him by his late police officer father’s partner detective Wang (Cao Weiyu). When Wang refuses to help, Liu turns to his friend Wan Lao (Cao Bingkun) who proposes a scam of stealing back unlicensed cars he sold, fix them up to resell and share in the profits to clear his debts. 

Unfortunately, the car Liu is to steal may belong to club hostess Zhang Qian (Li Meng) but gangster brothers Xia Xi (Ou Hao) and Xia Tao (Sha Baoliang) are currently using it. Liu manages to steal the car but discovers a little girl Qi Qi (Wulantuoya Duo) tied up in the boot. When Liu learns Qi Qi’s mother is willing to pay 2 million RMB for her daughter, he concocts a scheme to get the money. What could possibly go wrong? 

Before we go any further, yes, the director’s name is Jackie Gan and no, it isn’t a lame alias or tribute to our man JC. This isn’t 1970s Hong Kong shamelessly cashing in on the death of Bruce Lee by churning out a load of inferior clones – this is a debut film from the latest Chinese filmmaker to try his hand in the violent crime thriller genre.

Vortex might have sci-fi sounding connotations but there is nothing of the sort here, the title being a metaphor regarding the spiralling mess the characters find themselves in due to their bad decision making. One thing Gan does is paint those involved, except Qi Qi of course, in curious shades of grey that subvert the typical trope of a sensible person driven to act irrationally, presenting a rogues gallery of flawed people living up to their flaws. 

This makes for a curious character study in establishing whom the audience should root for without the pivot of the morally anchored innocent one – Qi Qi is more of a catalyst – to offset the stream of ill-advised choices. It might make it more exciting for some to see how the cast grow, and whilst there is an obvious choice by the end of the film of who the nominal hero is, their natural instincts still lead them down the wrong paths.

First though, there is the involved plot to navigate that just keeps adding more intrigue as it goes along, possibly to its detriment if you happen to favour character development over sinuous storytelling. One would think having as cop on your back would be a deterrent from trying something illegal and even Liu doesn’t like Wan Lao’s idea until he is won over by his smooth talking.

Less gullible is Zhang Qian who knows Wan is dodgy by she needs a car cheap and pronto, but why Qian is in league with the dangerous Xia Brothers? Via a phone left in the stolen car, Xia Tao demands Qi Qi is returned or else but Liu is curious about this. Qi Qi reveals she turns six in two days and wants to see her father on her birthday but her mother refuses to tell Qi Qi where her father is let alone see him.

So, Liu rings Qi Qi’s mother who automatically assumes Liu is someone else and makes an unsolicited offer to pay 2 million RMB for her daughter’s return. With dollar signs in his eyes and chance to send Qi Qi home, Liu formulates what he thinks is a win-win plan – except Xia Xi had found out where Liu’s garage is, and Qi Qi doesn’t want to go home to mother.

It doesn’t end there, far from it because, as you might suspect, everyone talks in riddles with scant substance to their information that invites trouble via the constant conclusion jumping. But, as a crime thriller, you can’t slow things down for the sake of exposition dumps and things would be rather dull without the ambiguity to keep us hooked until the sadly rushed climax.

Competently executed it’s all text book stuff, but needed a bit longer to wrap it up more satisfyingly. As alluded to earlier, it is partly down to some characters, like the Xia Brothers being one dimensional at best. For instance, the taciturn Xi is like a terminator, relentlessly surviving all physical attacks without flinching, driven by psychotic intent and chilling lack of remorse, but Ou Hao is very convincing in the role regardless.

Zhang Qian also remains enigmatic to the end. Motivated by good intentions, the truth behind her misguided actions doesn’t tell us enough about her beyond an inference she reacts in desperation. As the only prominent adult female, this gives Li Meng just enough to work with to prevent Qian’s role from being token window dressing, but a little more depth is needed.

Young Wulantuoya Duo as Qi Qi will score big with her puppy dog eyes and wonderfully realistic reactions to the heavy stuff, like crying during a violent fight like a real child would and not trying to get involved like Stewie Griffin. She also creates a nice vibe with Da Peng who conveys the duality of a nice guy crushed by his vices seeking to regain his humanity with some credibility.

As a debut, Vortex shows Jackie Gan is a student of genre convention with an ambition to take it further, and in a few years time, most probably will. Before then he will need to gets to grips with the balance between strong characters, complex storytelling, and hard action. On this evidence, I think Gan will be one to watch out for in the future.