With China being an increasingly important part of the box office for big budget western movies, it’s easy to think that this exchange of culture is only one way. But recently the Chinese have become equally happy to send their movies over to the West. Because hey, who doesn’t want more money?
For the most part, the ones that make it across the seas tend to be the big hitters of Chinese cinema. Movies like Operation Red Sea, Detective Chinatown 2 and Monster Hunt 2 all (as of June 2018) sit comfortably on 2018’s top 10 highest grossing films wordwide; and each had decent runs at many London cinemas. (Also, clearly the Chinese like sequels just as much as the West!)
But every so often a much smaller film finds its way into UK cinemas. And it’s these that draw special attention. Without the backing of a blockbuster audience, surely such films must possess something special?
Alas, A or B is not one of those films. In the same way that America and India now send over their below-par films because they know they can make a quick buck, it seems that Chinese movies are now so ubiquitous the Middle Kingdom can do exactly the same.
Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zheng) is a corrupt businessman, playing the stock market for his own selfish benefit. But in spite of his incredible wealth, he still has a variety of problems. He doesn’t get along with his wife, Wei Simeng (Wang Likun); instead choosing to have an affair with well-connected gold trader, Zhu Nan (Zhao Da). The situation is not helped by the recent suicide of close friend and fellow businessman, Zeng Guangwen (Simon Yam).
But all those complications pale in significance when Zhong wakes up and realises he is now a prisoner in his own apartment. Unable to escape, he is soon communicated with by a mysterious voice through a two-way radio. Said voice gives him a choice everyday at 9:30am between two impossible decisions labelled A or B. With his business and personal life crumbling around him, Zhong must do everything he can to escape and save what little he has left.
Written and directed by Ren Pengyuan, A or B has, at least on the surface, one hell of an intriguing premise. Watching a man wake up trapped in his own home, held hostage by a unknown antagonist, and forced to make unbelievably difficult choices of which either will destroy his life. Mystery and tension for the win people!
Indeed, the single-location surroundings suggests a
slightly hugely less violent version of a Saw movie. By making his shots as intimate as possible in these scenes, Ren dials up the tension to eleven, keeping the enigma going as long as possible. Certain scenes even have a sort of Hitchcock-vibe to them, bringing to mind past classics like Strangers on a Train or Rear Window.
But the main problem really comes from the portrayal of the lead character. Unlike other similar films, Zheng’s character invites very little sympathy, especially when the opening scenes clearly indicate him as a man with almost no morals or scruples. As such, despite the mystery of who is keeping him prisoner, you don’t really care whether Zheng’s character manages to save his reputation. As a matter of fact, it’s hard not to feel a little bit of perverse pleasure from seeing a titan of the banking industry get his comeuppance.
Though it’s bad enough that the lead character is so unlikable, pretty much none of the characters are ones that you would want to spend time with. Wang Likun, playing Zhong’s wife, is given very little to do outside of looking depressed and moping around. And the less said about the movie’s villain and his utterly ludicrous plan, the better.
In addition, Ren makes the peculiar choice to have the large majority of the film’s final incrimination take place over the credits. It’s an odd decision considering the large majority of people are exiting the the cinema by this point (though maybe audience behaviour is different in China).
It seems, taken as a whole, A or B never really manages to rise above its premise or the early housebound scenes. Maybe if the running time had clocked in at less than 90 minutes this would have been tolerable. But instead the film is a sprawling 2 hours, leading to an emotional experience that is soulless rather than stirring.