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Are You Lonesome Tonight?

Director: Shipei Wen (China). Year of Release: 2021

1997, Guangdong Province. After Wang Xueming runs over Liang in a hit and run accident, he hides the body at the side of the road near a river. Meanwhile Liang’s widow is putting up Missing posters around town. One day, the police call her in to identify her husband’s corpse. Xueming also visits the police, determined to hand himself in, but chickens out at the last minute.

Instead he gets himself a job repairing Mrs. Liang’s air conditioning system, promising to do it for free. He spends his day in her house, while a cacophony of neighbours brush through, offering sympathy. Later a couple of gangsters turn up, demanding money owed to them by Liang. Xueming sees them off. Mrs. Liang asks him to stay and eat, because she doesn’t like cooking for one. After previously hesitating, Xueming finally now decides to fess up to killing Mrs. Liang’s husband.

We are already half way through the film. It has been an amiable enough and interestingly lit examination of character, of grief, of regret. We can well imagine it going one of two ways, depending on whether or not Mrs. Liang forgives Xueming for what he has done. Instead something quite unexpected happens which it is difficult to explain without plot spoilers.

Incidents which we have already seen are shown from a different angle, or in the context of what happened directly before or after they took place. Director Shipei Wen uses a neat trick of repeating dialogue that is familiar to us, to make us aware that what we are watching is not in perfect chronological order. Based on our new understanding of what really happened, the plot goes into a brand new direction.

It is now much clearer why Liang’s widow was visited by thugs demanding money. Her husband was a gangster, and his business associates do not always employ legitimate business practices. We encounter a familiar trope – a key to a railway locker containing a bag of money – but this is all handled quite elegantly, so we don’t dismiss it as a tired old cliché. There is a manhunt, various people hit each other. The cops get involved.

We are reminded that a couple of the early scenes are set in a prison, as we hear an inmate’s internal monologue: “in jail, everything’s the same. Even the nightmares don’t change.” Until now, everything has been meandering in no particular direction. Now we see that some of the actions that we have witnessed really do have consequences.

We hear the title song three times, each time sung by Chinese singers. The first time, it plays behind a closed door as Xueming leaves Mrs. Liang’s house while she is grieving her dead husband. The second time, it is sung by a blind singer – who may or may not be actually blind – in exchange for money and information. The third time, it appears on television in front of a dozing security guard.

There is a fair amount of quirk in such scenes which may infuriate the impatient. Maybe I was just in a good mood, but I went along with it all. There was something about it that reminded me of the Scottish playwright / tv writer John Byrne, who often throws in anomalous scenes, for no obvious reason other than it seems to amuse him. Byrne is also not averse to use Elvis songs, so maybe that’s what put him in my head.

What to make of it all? Well, it’s a film that is quite happy swapping genres. There’s a bit of noir and the whole “young man tries to atone to older woman who he has wronged” bit. Later, it turns into a gangster film where the police chase two people who are busy trying to settle their own score. There is some arty scenery and at least one moment of slapstick when an arms dealer shoots himself with his own gun.

In short, it’s a bit all over the place, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Certainly, the way in which the film plays with chronology and memory is pulled off quite gracefully, without drawing undue attention to itself. Are You Lonesome Tonight? may have pretensions to be more profound than it actually is, but this is a pleasant enough film which has quite a few memorable high points.

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