Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
It is the waiting that hurts — the moments after you know you’ve done something wrong, and you are waiting to see how you will be punished. Will retribution come swiftly, or will the punishment be dealt out incrementally to prolong your suffering? Is it better to get away with a crime if your guilt feels worse than any punishment that could be given to you? First-time director Wen Shipei’s film Are You Lonesome Tonight? ponders the impact guilt can have on us in this time of lingering.
Eddie Peng plays Xueming, who believes he is responsible for a fatal accident he drives away from. While it seems he has gotten away with it, his guilt won’t allow him to move on. The story unfolds non-linearly, as more layers are peeled back and the audience is shown perspectives not initially seen. Peng’s guilt pushes him to contact the dead man’s wife, Mrs. Liang (Sylvia Chang), but his fear of punishment seems to keep him from opening up. Mrs. Liang is also feeling guilty for the way things were with her husband before his death. It is through these two characters that the exploration of guilt and our attempt to find retribution is explored.
Creating a crime thriller that’s ultimately a mediation on guilt and humanity is challenging, but Shipei succeeds in this film. The script by Zhao Binghao, Wang Yinuo, Noé Dodson, and Shipei is constucted to make for a gripping story. Every time the audience believes they understand the whole picture, a new element is introduced that recontextualizes their perspective. From the opening shot of a bull breaking off his rope, leading to the first image of Peng’s character in prison, the movie starts to set-up the tone. Peng poses the idea that after so many years of hearing the question of what did you do to end up there, the answer is often forgotten. The story jumps back and we start to see the answer, but it becomes clear that it will take some time to get all the pieces of this puzzle.
It’s not enough to just have a compelling story if what is on screening doesn’t look good. Fortunately, the style of this movie stands out. Sometimes the film is dark, but with some interesting lighting sets. When the accident occurs, for example, the inside of the car is suddenly bathed in red light. The implication is that the headlights have changed color due to the impact. The contrast in each image usually reflects the internal feelings of the characters and makes for a cool-looking movie. There are several frames in the film that stand out and would make for a cool piece of wall art.
For a debut film, Are You Lonesome Tonight is well-crafted and well-performed. It is a strong introduction for Shipei. This film has many personal elements built into, and that seems to have translated well. Fans of crime stories will likely find this a solid entry into the genre, but one focused on the aftermath more so than the act itself. It has more in common with In Bruges, Drive My Car, and Atonement than Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. That just so happens to work for me.
Are You Lonesome Tonight premieres on VOD on March 17.