“A or B” is a high tech thriller starring Xu Zheng and Wang Likun and directed by Ren Pengyuan. The film was selected to open the 2018 Beijing International Film Festival. This fast paced thriller tells the story of billionaire Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zeng), a corrupt businessman who becomes the target of a high tech revenge plot. Zhong is put to the ultimate test of wits by his captor and forced to make decisions that will harm his business empire, his estranged wife and possibly his own life.
At first I thought this was a straight-up heist film when I watched the trailer but the film’s story is much more complicated. Billionaire Zhong is held captive in his beautiful designer mansion and forced to play a game called A or B. His captor takes control of the big screen TV he has in his bedroom and presents him with choices like, A – Expose your corrupt business dealings or B – Cause harm to your wife. The kidnapper talks to him on a walkie-talkie in a digitally altered voice and forces him to make these choices with very little time to decide. The plot is complex but the story is fairly easy to follow. It has one or two rough spots and perhaps a plot hole or two, but if you are enjoying the fast paced ride you don’t stop to think much about it. The film is full of interesting twists and turns and when it starts to focus on Zhong and his estranged wife Wei it’s at its most interesting.
The central themes of the film are greed and reconciliation. Zhong is a cruel man who mostly cares about making money even though he is a billionaire, drives a Bentley and lives in one the most interesting houses I have seen in a film. His obsession with wealth drives a stake between him and his beautiful wife. He says his constant pursuit of wealth is to give her a good life, but this isn’t what she wants. The story moves quickly and the film is just under two hours but doesn’t feel long due to it being divided into clear cut acts.
We spend most of the film with Zhong, and Xu Zheng’s subtle performance is one of the film’s strongest aspects. He portrays a cold and smug corporate shark with ease. We spend a lot of time with him in the film but I found myself wishing to learn more about him as a character as the film went on. The subtleties of Xu Zheng’s performance reward the viewer when we see him evolve over time. Zhang’s wife, Wei Simeng played by Wang Likun, brings a depressed grace to the film, like that of a sad angel. She undergoes a physical transformation from well to sickly and well again, that is a make-up achievement but her presence and graceful movements act as an antithesis to her husband’s cold and calculating ways. The other performance of note is Tang Wanyuan played by Wang Yanhui, the exceptionally cold killer who is after Zhong’s money. Wang Yanhui brings a terrifyingly silent presence to each scene he is in, and in the absence of seeing Zhong’s kidnaper gives the film a bad guy to fear and helps balance the cast.
“A or B” is a beautiful looking film and it is skillfully photographed by director of photography Liu Yizeng. The interiors of Zhong’s ultra modern house are stunning in charcoal and black. Every location has interesting architectural elements. Many shots are very dynamic and the camera moves freely without feeling indulgent. Most scenes are shot at interesting angles or the lighting frames a character or prop Ren Pengyuan wants us to focus on.
Any fan of thrillers or intense character studies will enjoy “A or B”. I was surprised by the turns the story made and its overall direction. It does have one or two plot issues but the film moves at a quick pace so you may not notice them. “A or B” is a beautifully shot and superbly acted film.