EXPECTATIONS: An entertainingly bonkers thriller.
REVIEW: The cat-and-mouse thriller genre has been a great well for filmmakers to mine since Alfred Hitchcock came into the picture. With classic films like Strangers on a Train to current films like The Commuter, films where the lead character is an ordinary person swept up in extraordinary circumstances have been a constant in cinema.
With China’s latest effort in the cat-and-mouse genre, we have A or B, with Xu Zheng playing the hapless lead in the extraordinary situation which could involve the potential loss of his wealth, his belongings and even his wife, thanks to an unknown assailant. Will the film provide the requisite thrills?
Xu Zheng stars as billionaire thief, Zhong Xiaonian prowls auction houses appearing calm on the surface while plotting a multi-million-dollar heist. But just as his criminal career is about to strike gold, he’s kidnapped and forced to take part in a twisted multiple-choice game (hence the title) controlled by a mysterious, unknown captor.
By not going along with the captor’s game, he’s on the verge of losing his reputation, all of his possessions and his long-suffering wife (Wang Likun) so must beat his anonymous captive at their own game before it gets deadly.
One of the essential elements of a successful cat-and-mouse thriller is that the audience should be able to empathize and relate to the predicament of the lead character(s). In the case of A or B, we see Xiaonian, a character who is despicable in the way he treats his co-workers, his friends and especially his wife. It would take a certain kind of actor to play the role very well and unfortunately, Xu Zheng is not that actor.
Zheng tries valiantly, lending a sense of desperation to the character but his performance doesn’t help the fact that the character is unlikable not worth caring for. Wang Likun also tries her best as Simeng, Xiaonian’s wife, but her thinly-written character is left nothing to do but suffer. Suffer for her husband, suffer for her life, it just goes on and on and it doesn’t make a compelling character and only serves as a motivation for the lead, which is a real shame.
The supporting cast are all okay with their parts like Duan Bowen as a reporter who helps Xiaonian out and Wang Yanhui, overacting gloriously as the scumbag competitor to Zhu Zhu as the vamp femme fatale; but Simon Yam plays a role that is only present for less than a minute and honestly, anyone could’ve have played that role.
Another essential element is the plausibility of the predicament. As for the storytelling itself, director Ren Pengyuan lends a pedestrian execution to the proceedings. While there are some moments that add life to the story i.e. the more desperate moments in the climax, it goes beyond ridiculous that it’s hard to empathize with what’s happening.
There are moments where Xiaonian all of a sudden becomes
MacGruber MacGyver and improvises objects that would help his escape. Those moments are unbelievable but they are undeniably entertaining, even if one of the moments basically rips off the 2005 American thriller, Cellular. But the film wades into melodrama in the second act, which revolves around Xiaonian and Simeng and it wallows there, having the life sucked out of it.
It also does not help that the culprit in charge of kidnapping Xiaonian is very easy to figure out and the motivation for said villain is quite rote and is revealed too little, too late. And just when the ending of the film suits what had proceeded it, thanks to the magic of Chinese film censorship, all of what happened was all for naught, thanks to the end credit sequences, that are pandering, insulting and a total cop-out.
And there are filmmaking gaffes that are quite blatant like continuity errors (eg. inconsistent car damage in the car chase), plot holes like how no authority bothered to track down who sent the suspicious messages, how did the characters gather all the lights and so on.
There are even terrible lines of dialogue like “A number that cannot be turned to cash is just a number” and this reviewer’s personal favourite, “People would indeed die for money”. The audience just went through 90 minutes where the message conveyed exactly that. There was no need to verbalize it and it just comes off as patronizing.
And there’s the bizarre elements like how the antagonists in the film cater to Japanese customs like eating sushi, which goes back to the xenophobia of Chinese film censorship and the use of a bomb that actually says the word “EXPLOSIVE” on it, in English. Whether one were to see it as patronizing or it’s meant to hint that it’s a foreign product because the Chinese would never make explosives, who knows?
It just goes to show how unengaging the film is when these details go noticed. Overall, A or B is a middling cat-and-mouse experience with few thrills, a couple of okay performances, saddled with a cool premise. Unfortunately, due to the slack pacing, the sloppy storytelling, the unlikable lead character and the cop-out ending(s), the film doesn’t make the grade of either an A or a B. More like a D-minus, really.
An interesting premise
Some okay performances
Some ridiculously entertaining moments
Melodramatic second act
Terrible end-credit scenes that ruin what had preceded it
Cast: Xu Zheng, Wang Likun, Duan Bowen, Wang Yanhui, Zhu Zhu, Simon Yam
Director: Ren Pengyuan
Screenwriters: Ren Pengyuan