Settling down for Village of No Return I was expecting another mediocre Chinese genre film, an effects driven action comedy along the lines of Vampire Cleanup Department or Mojin: The Lost Legend, amiable thanks to a star turn from Shu Qi and a supporting role by Eric Tang, but ultimately weightless. Instead, it’s one of the cleverest films of the year, a sly satire on the rapid transformations of 20th century Chinese society and the changes they require in collective memory. Some three years after the end of the Qing Dynasty, a huckster arrives in a small village toting a myserteous device which he claims can eliminate worries. He tries it out on a few people, eliminating memories and gradually has erased the entire town’s minds, installing himself as their beloved leader and ordering them to dig all over town for hidden treasure. Shu Qi is one of the townspeople, the daughter of the former chief who has been forced into a marriage so distasteful she has to be chained to the house when her husband leaves town. The huckster frees her (after she kinda of murdered her husband) but then washes her brain into marrying him. But as she starts to figure out his scheme, a gang of bandits which includes her long lost love shows up to destroy the village at the behest of Eric Tsang, who wants to level it to build a railroad. The movie takes a while to build up steam, but once everything is in place it unfolds with unexpected and fascinating twists, with an ending far more ambivalent than it appears.
The village is mostly a collection of grotesques, venal and stupid, with the exception of a kung fu master who can’t fight because of some past trauma (the action scene he eventually gets is a highlight, an expert transposition of comic book style posing within a fight sequence). The bandits are more interesting, led by a woman who moonlights as a mail-carrier (she wears the old Qing style uniform), they’re more of an a capella group than a gang of killers, and their singing magnifies the film’s oddball yet weirdly traditional charms. Everything about the design of the memory-stealing device is delightful, from its mechanical seahorses to the animated proscenium which appears framing the black and white silent movie images of a person’s memory. The seahorses are a callback to director Chen You-hsun’s 2012 short Hippocamp Hair Salon, which was about a salon that could wash away unpleasant memories (clearly the fungibility of memory is something about which Chen has strong feelings). I saw it as part of the 10+10 shorts program, which tasked ten young Taiwanese directors and ten veterans (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Sylvia Chang, etc) with each making a five minute film. Chen’s film was one of the highlights, and Village of No Return follows through on that project’s promise.