Ning Hao’s Guns and Roses is exactly what it sounds like: a high-octane chase-and-explosion drama, featuring a gloved sadist as the enemy, a scrappy anti-hero as the protagonist, and a Manichean sense of good and bad. In the tradition of all resistence dramas, the premise is a deceptively simple whitewash of a famously complex historical situation. In the case of Guns and Roses, it’s the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the early ’30s, which spurred a resistance movement and a six-month cycle of violence before a truce was reached.
Embedded within the larger story of the occupation, is the story of Xiao, played by Lei Jia Yin, a streetwise grifter, who falls in with a bunch of revolutionaries in the makeshift film industry of the occupation. A gold robbery ensues, as does bloodshed, and quite a few less people survive than one would expect. The film handles the Japanese insurgents with as little subtlety as films about Nazi-occupied Europe tend to provide their antagonists, setting up scenes of unsuspecting civilian life upon which random violence descends, leaving people ignorant of the history assuming that a desire for domination and bloodlust were the prevailing political incentives for any historical occupation of a territory. A fair enough assumption, and perhaps a normal one to make in the case of showy historical epics whose main intention is never about the history, interesting though it may be. Still, one has to ask: how many times can one see a crazed sadist orchestrate a scene of violence while Peer Gynt plays in the background? But subtlety is never a fair demand from conventional films, and Guns and Roses is at heart extremely conventional, despite being decently entertaining.
Not so for Chips, an existential drama from Yoshihiro Nakamura dealing with the large themes of mistaken identity and petty crime in an intriguingly small way. With a bizarre, disorienting beginning which revolves around a discussion of Newton, the film launches into a story of three characters: Tadashi, a thief (the details of his employment are kept vague) Kurosawa, a private detective he has befriended, and Tadashi’s girlfriend Wakaba, whom he met after trying to talk her down from jumping off the roof of a building due to being spurned by a former boyfriend. Their first meeting, in which he first delays her suicide attempt by promising to ride to the roof on a giraffe, is an interaction both bizarre and strangely tender, and very much the blueprint how the rest of the film’s interactions will be played out. None of the darkness of this act is in evidence, but the impulsiveness of the character, as well as the importance of her catchphrase (“I’ll kick your ass!”) is made clear. The three friends make a point of following a local baseball hero, Ozaki, whom Tadashi, for reasons of his own, harbors a deep obsession with.
Chips is an adaptation of a story by Kotaro Isaka, and it shows in the most flattering way possible. The film has a similar stilted feeling as some of Miranda July’s work, with all the action (such as it is) taking place in between, and seeming to infringe upon, a series of long, fraught pauses. The climax of the film is an exaggeration of this; a quiet and suspenseful sequence in which the surprise appearance of Ozaki at a baseball game, culminates with his hitting a ball out of the park to the affirmation of all. It’s a strange and perhaps predictable note on which to end, but unlike a more conventional film would have it, the introduction of the absent character around whom the plot has been based has little to no clarifying power, and the emotional mystery in which the story of Chips is rooted remains unilluminated, somewhat buried, and entirely interesting because of it.
The New York Asian Film Festival will continue at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through July 12th.