“Wisdom Tooth”, a directorial debut by the actor Liang Ming (seen in a leading role in Zhao Dayong’s “Shadow Days”), might prove to be the next big festival hit that comes from the ranks of Asian cinema. After bagging the awards on the national stage, from its world premiere at Pingyao (both Jury and Best Director prizes) on to Macao and Chinese Young Generation Film Forum, the film premiered internationally at the Bright Future competition of Rotterdam, and the tour continues with Göteborg.
Gu Xi, played by Lyu Xingchen (seen in a number of Chinese films last year), is a girl on the brink of adulthood. Her older brother Gu Liang (Wu Xiaoling) is not just the only family member, but basically all she has in life. They both struggle to survive, living in a shack next to a wreck of a bus in a provincial coastal town in Northern China, where he makes his living as fisherman, while she works as a maid in a hotel owned by the town’s bigwig Jiang (Tao Hai). On top of her precarious undocumented status that could leave her jobless any time, an oil spill puts the pressure on the brother too, which leads him to some shady deals, as he gets entangled with his Dongzi (Wang Weishen, seen in Ye Lou’s politically charged thriller “The Shadow Play”).
The relationship between the siblings faces a serious test when Quingchang (Wang Jiajia, glimpsed in Wen Muye’s “Dying to Survive”), a well-off girl with a spunky attitude and Korean ties, walks into their lives. Liang is instantly smitten by her, which sparks some jealousy in Xi, but it is not that simple since the girls forge some kind of connection on their own. The other thing that affects the life of the trio starts with a murder at sea that somehow has something to do with Liang and Dongzi, and also with Jiang and Quingchang’s dock owner father (Chen Yongzhong) and evolves into a meandering crime story that remains in the background.
Does it make much sense? Maybe not, but it feels deliberately so because Liang Ming’s gaze is so aligned with Xi’s and the perspective of someone in their late teens tends to be rather unfocused and emotion-driven, with a number of questions of identity, belonging, the present and the future coming to light. Also, because of her position that forces her to remain in the background and be unseen, it would not be very realistic to expect that she could pick up everything about social dynamics and the mechanics of crime, corruption and power play in the town, and paint a wide and detailed picture, while also having to deal with the troubles of her own.
Often described as a cross-over between Lee Chang-dong’s masterpiece “Burning” and a European-flavoured relationship drama a la Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” (although the incest component is never presented graphically here), with a sprinkle of slow-burning crime thriller and socially charged backwoods noir lifted directly from a couple of decades old newspapers, “Wisdom Tooth” works on its own terms and it even feels rounded-up nicely and deliberately in its ambiguity. It is visible in the significant details in the background that are steering the plot, along with Ding Ke’s subtle music hints blended in a superb sound design and the color scheme that highlights the contrasts between mud and snow, luxurious and poor residential spaces, shady bars and respectable establishments. Even the title, taken from Xi’s own subplot, works as a metaphor of emotional turmoil and affected perception.
Powered by strong acting, as well as technical components, with He Shan’s camerawork being the standout, “Wisdom Tooth” is one of the most gripping festival titles of winter season, albeit being at times confusing and frustratingly uneven. Its blend of randomness and cause and effect seems pretty much life-like.