Han Han’s “The Continent” – 2014 Busan Film Review

Travel is supposed to broaden the mind. Be it a trip to a foreign country or a visit to town a few kilometers away, it is ingrained in us that leaving our familiar surroundings is supposed to allow the lucky traveler to peel back the veneer of his or her perceived reality, and gain some wisdom about the world, a path to happiness, or even something as banal as enjoying foreign cuisine.

However, the transformation is not always positive. Travel can shine a light on aspects of our character we wish had buried.  In Shanghainese author, car racer, blogger, and apparently all-around bon vivant Han Han’s debut feature, “The Continent” (后会无期, 2014), the general premise of the road trip movie is used to tell a melancholic tale about three men who expect to have the requisite adventure and end up drifting so far away from each other that whatever friendship these men once had with one another has evaporated into the ether.

“The Continent” is a hodge-podge of influences and ideas with echoes of Jim Jarmusch’s 80s road trip films, popular contemporary Chinese cinema – especially the pictures that focused on the Japanese occupation and pre-Mao era – and more than just a wink and nod to China’s indie film culture. It even features a hilarious cameo by Jia Zhangke. Yet, even with all these disparate links, the film comes together as something more than the sum of its parts.

Each of the three men in the film, Hu Sheng (Gao Huayang), Ma Haohan (Feng Shaofeng), and Jiang He (Chen Polin), are each motivated by personal narratives. For Hu Sheng it’s the history he has with his hometown, and his friendship with Haohan and Jiang. His story though is abandoned early on in the film as both men accidentally leave Sheng behind. Yet, it is through his words that we enter the film proper as he recounts the story of his friends and their road trip plans.

Offering up a much meatier backstory is Haohan: a loud, over-confident, and oftentimes selfish typical alpha-male. He has based his life on his late father’s, a sailor who died at sea when Haohan was just a boy. Restless and never comfortable in one spot for too long, he assumes the identity of a world-weary traveler and boasts of having friends everywhere. On this specific journey though, the narrative that he has based his entire life on collapses as the myth of his father and his own naïve views of the world are proven to be not so black and white. Haohan, a self-proclaimed optimist, falls hard by the end and Feng captures so much of Haohan’s disillusionment through the way his character’s eyes lose a lot of their intensity as he suffers setback after setback.

The third character of Jiang He starts the film as an eccentric schoolteacher. For most of the movie he stays that way; the reason is that Chen internalizes a lot of the conflict within the character. Jiang is not a neurotic nor is he fighting against something. He is mostly passive, and even when he is given a goal, such as a woman posing as a prostitute who Jiang falls in love with, that storyline is eventually swept aside to make room for the road trip itself. It’s tempting to state that Jiang is merely a supporting character, yet without him as a contrast to Haohan, the film would be very one-note. These two men’s differing philosophies are perfectly encapsulated by the actors playing them.

The film’s use of long shot captures not just the beauty of the landscapes or the smallness of a person within China’s vastness, but also the immutability of the environment even as history, be it personal or national, rolls through it. Han, Liao Ni (Director of Photography), and the film’s location scout were smart to stay away from Beijing or any of China’s burgeoning metropolises. Those areas have been filmed ad nauseam, and Han’s film is far removed from the concerns of city ennui and unrest. Many of the shots are framed through the juxtaposition of desolate landscapes or small town minutiae with monuments to modernity, jarring viewers to the fact that we are watching a present-day story and not a mere nostalgic tale.

“The Continent” could be classified as many things. It is about history and storytelling, and is obviously a road trip film, but it is also a melancholic comedy, a character drama, an ensemble piece, a coming of age tale, etc. etc. For its director, I hope it will be a springboard for him to make more films. Unlike a lot of the serious fare that is coming out of Chinese indie cinema lately, Han Han’s debut does not lose the exuberance, charismatic visual style, and intelligence that characterizes the best of world cinema.

“The Continent” screens at the Busan International Film Festival on Oct. 9 (twice). For more information, go to biff.kr.