By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
White. The color of mourning. The color of snow. In Chinese, Bai has a rising tone. The surname, Bai, which means white, belongs to the central character in one of the latest films out of mainland China, The Fatal Contract. If you sit down to watch this movie, I hope you can handle being up close and personal with death. A lot of it. Pain. A lot of it. And love. A lot of it. This movie won’t necessarily make you cry. But it is going to break your heart.
An internet search on the film and its main actress, Bai Ling, reveals way too much conversation about how Bai pissed off China about a million years ago (1997), when she starred in Red Corner with Richard Gere, and how the actress has, or had, a penchant for showing off her boobs in public. Ok.
Enough of that. Yes, it’s the first time in 20 years that Bai has been allowed to star in a mainland Chinese movie, and that is a landmark and reason enough to watch the film. Yet there are many other reasons, not the least of which is Bai’s entrancing performance and the powerful punch of the movie’s storyline.
Everything in this movie is a surprise, even though you sort of know from the beginning what is going on. You just don’t want to believe it. The movie starts with a murder. The victim is a painter, and it turns out there is a rash of deaths of painters and their models in this town. In regards to the dead painter we get to know best, we are told that, due to romantic fallout, he was a violent, drunk bastard that treated women like junk and was estranged from his wife. We find out quickly that our heroine, Bai Wei, played by Bai Ling, was one of his models. We’re not sure if she’s the one who caused the fallout, the murderer, one of the women he treated like junk, or all three.
Brush into the painting a ridiculously icy David Lynch-esque lady art collector, Lu Li, played by Tao Hong, who loves to ambulance-chase dead painters and stock up on their most soulful works. We learn later that she’s got rules as to what she will purchase, and when. As her art dealer explains, “The story behind the piece is especially important…this is the soul of the work. If it has a soul, then it naturally has artistic value. At the same time, it will have spiritual value.” Whether this is Lu Li’s real motivation is up for debate. But let me tell you. She’s devoted.
The next element in the demented canvas is the bar owner, Tu La, Bai Wei’s love interest, played by Zhao Yanguozhang, who persistently claims he is not a painter, and who spends a lot of time with dead people, um, painting. Of course, the movie is confusing for awhile, as any good murder-mystery should be. Don’t worry. Although the movie starts with a lot of jumpy scenes and flashbacks, and you pray that if you hang on, you’ll eventually understand what the hell is happening, it does deliver. In the best, cliffhanger way. Welcome to The Fatal Contract.
Like the plot, the characters are hard to figure out at first and a bit jarring.
What is up with icy lady? Why is Bai Wei so whacked out? Why doesn’t Tu La ever smile? And why does this old man at the crematorium (I told you to get ready to be up close and personal with death) act so mysterious? Oftentimes their actions seem forced — why the big pause after Bai Wei says, “Let’s enjoy winter” and before she flings snow joyfully into the air? The entire film moves in a lockstep that is at first quick, and then slows down so that we can fully share and agonize over the way that no one is getting away from what is happening and what is going to happen. And that’s death. And also love.
People fall in love hard in this movie. Romeo and Juliet type love. It’s raw, tragic, and beautiful. As the film moves along, you realize that the plot is carefully crafted and the characters are pleasingly consistent. Bai Wei isn’t flaky — she’s an innocent. Tu La has reasons for not smiling — and when he does smile, it has all the more meaning. Icy lady is just icy lady. What at first seems odd about, well, all of them, falls into place as the story takes shape.
The Fatal Contract definitely has the feel of a mainland China movie — without the pomp and circumstance you might be used to from someone like Zhang Yimou. The setting is bleak and not just because it’s winter. There seems to be almost no one living in the town where the story takes place. The characters appear almost all of the time with just each other, even in public locations, and the interiors are run-down (in an artsy kind of way) except for that of Lu Li, whose comparatively opulent white and gold mansion is nonetheless, well, empty.
There’s also a strange juxtaposition between the put-together appearance of the main characters and the extras who pop in, maids and ticket agents and such, that look like they were grabbed off the street (hopefully I haven’t offended some really famous character actor or actress who just wanted a bit part this time around). There’s a low budget yet purposefully constructed feel to the whole thing that is perplexing and fascinating. Full disclosure: For those in the United States that are used to a certain look from the male romantic interest, you might have to adjust your thinking a bit for this movie — all for the good, believe me. Tu La is a spiffy dresser, yet he doesn’t have the manicured features a U.S. audience expects. The primary female characters, though, are more in-line with what we usually see on screen — either flawless or funky.
The Fatal Contract is as macabre and absurd as Fargo, but without the funny parts. It’s not funny. That’s not the genre. It’s definitely in the tradition of a dark detective film. And there is no quirky, smart “Marge” to figure everything out and save the day. Nope. The detective in this story, Li Lu, played by Xuan Miao, is in lockstep with everyone and everything else, except she’s one step behind and so she is never going to stop the inevitable.
She’s not stupid. She just can’t extricate herself from the wheel that is already turning, not of karma, but of vengeance. As Tu La says (to a dead person), “It had to be this way.”
Let’s face it. Any movie that plays “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the background, at least since Good Morning, Vietnam, we’ve known that means things are not going to go well. The miraculous and deeply Shakespearean thing about the movie, though, is that in spite of its obsession with death, when it’s over — you want to live. As fully as possible. And love. As fully and as quickly as possible. It makes you want to grab your significant other and well, you know. Let’s hope he or she hasn’t stepped out for coffee or anything. The Fatal Contract is going to give you some serious separation anxiety.
The Fatal Contract is available via online video platforms.
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.