Design of Death by Hu Guan
The violent death of an unpopular village miscreant Niu Jie Shi is initially blamed on an infectious disease, but an investigation shows that everybody in the village had a reason to murder him. A doctor who is assigned to the village begins an murder investigation.
Following the trend of the success of Let the Bullets Fly and Crazy Stone, has set a new trend of these Chinese absurdist satirical “anything goes” comedies. The tropes include quick dialogue banter, quick cuts, anachronistic music, a “life is meaningless” theme and surreal absurdity. For anybody who may be familiar with the satirical writings of Lu Xun, it is exactly like that satirical acidic literary voice and transported it to a cinematic experience. Derek Yee’s The Great Magician attempted a version of this earlier this year and failed. And now comes Design of Death, based on a novel by Chen Tie Jun and directed by Hu Guan.
Just a sidenote, my mentioning of the film’s influences is not a critique. Being aware of (I will be adding this to my “Common Film Review Cliches to be Avoided” page ) a film’s influences is not direct to it’s own quality. I only bring it up to set up my review. On with the actual review now…
The mystery and the plot of Design of Death was what I was mostly invested in throughout the 109 minute running time. I wanted to know the story of what happened in this village. It wasn’t that it was really that mysterious or that kept me guessing with its twists and turns. With its surreal setting where anything can happen (i.e. there’s an X-ray machine in a village in the 1940s.), the lack of a consistent world rules seemed pointless to guess the mystery at all.
Huang Bo as Niu Jie Shi finds the proper balance of annoying and likable and carries the movie with a lot of charm. It’s tricky because he has to be annoying enough for you to see how the villagers grow annoyed of him but innocent enough for the audience to feel bad for it when he gets his comeuppance. He manages to build a character through the first half of the movie which mainly comprise of comedic gags and hijinks. Taiwanese actor Alec Su understands the kitsch of the film enough to have fun with his role as Dr. Niu. He plays it completely straight like he’s some evil scientist from a Saturday morning cartoon. Even his white costume is reminiscent of a lab coat. Yu Nan is not good looking in a traditional movie star way but has a unique presence as Niu Jie shi’s taciturn wife. I do not know how she managed to land a role in The Expendables 2 but I look forward to seeing her kick ass in that. Simon Yam is always a welcome presence in any movie but the fact that he’s being dubbed took it away for me.
It’s a bit superfluous talking about acting in the movie because it’s not a story that hangs on performance. The actors are not playing characters. Design of Death is not functioning on any sense of pathos with developed characters. Every character is a stereotype representing different ideas solely functioning to serve the film’s message.
Ultimately I do not find Niu’s actions reprehensible or deserving of his fate. He is an annoying little hemorrhoid of a human being I’ll give you that, but the way Huang Bo plays Niu Jie Shi suggests that he is not evil in his own nature or has no intention to harm others. He’s just annoying simply because it’s fun to annoy everybody in the village and there’s nothing else to do.
By the end, I saw where the film was going with it’s message and it asks that you go with it and attacks it with it a very “anything goes” satirical tone. I laughed more than I did in Let the Bullets Fly but it’s just simply an emotional place I did not want to go. I sat back and let the film lead me to it’s conclusion and finally it was a hollow experience.
There is a current rise of these comedies in China. With it’s harsh censorship and restrictions, these absurd satirical comedies makes sense because it is a way to laugh at things but still able to contain a strong unsubtle moral message. I understand its existence but I really hope these trend of films will go away. It’s run out of steam.
After all, why I would pay to watch a film to laugh my way to finally feel hollow?