The long, punishing arm of China's censorship board still hangs heavy over the career of mainland filmmaker Ning Hao. The once-exciting auteur turns in another safe, audience-friendly offering with Breakup Buddies, suggesting his penance for the acerbic No Man's Land is still far from paid.
Since his breakout feature Crazy Stone in 2006, a low budget heist comedy that achieved improbable success at the Chinese box office and made a star of comedian Huang Bo, writer-director Ning Hao was set to become one of the most essential filmmakers at work on the mainland. Blending multi-strand narratives involving petty criminals and low-lifes with cutting black humour and a frenetic pace and energy, his follow-up Crazy Racer fulfilled that promise and proved successful in a number of territories.
However, Ning hit a brick wall when his next film, No Man's Land failed to pass SARFT's opaque censorship requirements. After numerous re-edits the film was eventually shelved, and wouldn't see the light of day for four years. In the meantime, the director was unceremoniously sin-binned, permitted only to make the bland, inoffensive period caper Guns And Roses in 2012 - a film that owed more than a passing debt to the success of Jiang Wen's Let The Bullets Fly. No Man's Land has since been released in China, albeit in a significantly different version to Ning's original cut, and did healthy business at the box office. The film is currently enjoying an extended festival run, but judging by his new film, Ning is still working hard to placate the powers that be.
Breakup Buddies reunites Ning with two of his favourite actors, Huang Bo and Xu Zheng. Huang stars as Geng Hao, a one-time folk singer-turned second-hand TV salesman who is reeling from a divorce. Best friend Hao Yi (Xu Zheng), a moderately successful film producer, offers to take Geng on a guys road trip, to get drunk, hopefully score with some girls and get the whole nasty experience out of his system. Geng is incredibly reluctant, wanting only to wallow in self-pity and possibly murder his ex-wife's rich new boyfriend, but finally acquiesces. So with little dog "Juice" in tow, Geng and Hao hit the road, ushering in a parade of laddish hijinks as they drink, fight, bicker and hit on every female they encounter.
The unrelentingly irritating antics of the two leads are intercut with the altogether more sober and refreshing adventures of Xiaoyu (Yuan Guan), a beautiful yet frustrated young woman, who freaks out when her new bride best friend tries to raffle her off at her wedding. A fan of Geng Hao's music - in particular a song about the remote lake resort of Dali - Xiaoyu splurges on a ticket to the idyllic retreat, determined to escape her woes and relax. No sooner has she arrived, she adopts an adorable puppy of her own, but her hopes for a hassle-free trip are scuppered by the obnoxious owner of a nearby store.
While Xiaoyu's story is pretty inoffensive, and Yuan is a likeable screen presence, Ning is clearly more interested in the debauched antics of Geng and Hao. The discourse is loud and garish throughout, while the tone is broad, crude and frustratingly unfunny. Rather than echo the witty banter of Ning's earlier efforts, Breakup Buddies feels more aligned with last year's surprise hit, Lost in Thailand. Perhaps this should come as little surprise, as Huang and Xu both starred in that film too (alongside Wang Baoqiang), while Xu also directed. That film was also a road trip involving mismatched travellers forced together against their will, a Chinese version of The Hangover if you will, and as was the case there, the crass, high energy comedy got very tired very quickly.
Most frustrating of all, however, is not that Ning seems again to be punching below his weight for the sake of commercial success and pandering to the authorities. Rather, the bigger problem in Breakup Buddies is that Ning now seems to be celebrating many of the attitudes and behaviours he so frequently criticised in his other films. Greed and materialism have long been targets for the director, ridiculing the extent modern Chinese people will go for money and material gain. Here, however, even the sympathetic characters throw cash around with an incredibly callous lack of sensitivity, smothering themselves with decadence and luxury to an alarming degree.
There are individual moments of humour that do work along the way, but the hit rate takes a severe hiding when compared to the films on which the director and both his lead actors made their names. The female characters Geng and Hao encounter along the way, ranging from a buxom performer dressed like one of James Cameron's Avatars to a snappily-dressed and accommodating lesbian, aren't even given names, let alone the opportunity to be developed as anything more than narrative devices. Yuan Guan at least has plenty of screen time to herself, but even she is portrayed as clumsy and frustrated because, it is suggested, there is no man in her life.
A late narrative twist, which casts much of what we have witnessed in a very different light, fails to have the emotional impact it is clearly striving for. If anything the implausible revelation only serves to firm up the current state of things. In fact it proves ultimately so inconsequential that one wonders why the screenwriters even bothered. No doubt the tone-deaf, hopelessly inconsistent nature of the finished film had something to do with the film's six credited writers, none of which, incidentally, is the director.
One can only hope that Ning Hao's penance is soon up, and that he will be permitted to direct his own material once more and rediscover his once-so-promising voice. If he continues to be permitted only to make mass-market dross like Breakup Buddies and Guns And Roses, the sad truth is Ning Hao will no longer be a director worth paying attention to. As it stands, he is suffering in a chokehold of creative asphyxiation that may very soon kill him. His only respite seems to be that his friends are sticking by him through this arduous ordeal, which is proving painful for audiences and artists alike.