So Close to Paradise (1998) Movie Review

I must admit that the Chinese film “So Close to Paradise” surprised me. At first I found the film to be lacking and uninteresting and its acting to be spotty at times. But as the film progressed, its story drew me in, and its characters became people I could believe in and feel for. The film runs just short of 90 minutes, but its second half convinced me that it could have gone on for much longer.

“So Close to Paradise” takes place in late ’80s China, a country going through an industrial boom that sends young men and women from the rural areas into the big cities with dollar signs in their eyes. One of them is Dongzi (Yu Shi), a naïve youngster who is mentally and emotionally ill equipped to deal with “big city life.” Luckily for Dongzi he has hooked up with Gao Ping (Guo Tao), an older man who came from the same village as Dongzi, and now looks after the youngster out of a sense of obligation, or is that necessity? The two have a father-son relationship, but all of that comes into jeopardy when Gao Ping gets involved with Ruan (Tong Wang), a Vietnamese lounge sister with dreams of being a star…

“Paradise” is set in the late ’80s and takes place in a Chinese big city, but its story is common and has universal appeal. Ruan, Dongzi, and Gao are all fallible people and imperfect in so many ways. Their struggles to survive means that they need each other, even if they are unable to express it in a healthy way. In numbers, they survive, but apart, they fall, and all 3 seems to know it deep down.

Instead of recording songs, Ruan has found herself singing in a grungy, dirty nightclub. For Dongzi things aren’t any better. He’s a “shoulder pole,” one of many men from the rural area who carries cargo on poles held across their back; it’s backbreaking work that pays very little, but it’s the only one readily available to men like him. For Gao, the former country boy turned slick operator, things aren’t all rosy. Gao claims to be a “businessman”, but as Dongzi narrates, he has no idea what Gao does for a living.

“Paradise” opens with Gao involved in a shady deal that goes bad, setting a chain of events that makes Gao’s life even more complicated, not to mention dangerous.

Writer/director Xiaoshuai Wang makes the mistake of informing us, via Dongzi’s narration, that Gao is destined to die. This information is made known very early on and as a result a sense of doom permeates the rest of the movie. Keeping Gao’s eventual fate might have been a better idea, even if savvy viewers could have guessed ahead of time what will eventually befall a man of Gao’s caliber and personality. Sometimes telling less is more, and not telling anything via voiceover narration is even better.

As previously stated, the first half of “Paradise” comes up a little spotty, and for a while I was sure the film would fall into a trap similar to the South Korean drama “My Beautiful Days”, a movie that chose (much to its own detriment) to focus entirely on a dreadfully uninteresting main character. While Dongzi is not a firecracker by any means (and actually young Yu Shi plays his role as sedated and somber throughout) the character’s sense of isolation, loneliness, and desperation in the face of a world he is ill prepared for rings true and helps us to feel for him. It helps that “Paradise” has something to say beyond chronicling the life of a bored young man, which is what happened with “Days.”

There is no doubt that an emotionally powerful second half saves “Paradise” from being just mediocre. The movie also has a number of twists that I didn’t see coming, most notably a kidnapping that turns out to be a blessing for both kidnapper and kidnapped. The screenplay by Wang and Ming Pang is appropriately muted, and the film’s aesthetic is helped by dark, naturalistic lightning that gives the movie a gritty feel. The film uses what seems to be an on-the-fly shooting style; this gives the movie vibrancy when it needs it, and is missing when it doesn’t.

Xiaoshuai Wang (director) / Ming Pang, Xiaoshuai Wang (screenplay)
CAST: Tong Wang …. Ruan Hong
Yu Shi …. Dongzi
Guo Tao …. Gao Ping
Tao Wu …. Su Wu

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