When I wrote about superstar writer Han Han's directorial debut The Continent
in 2015, I noted that the meandering vagabond road film employing tropes common to his novels was absolutely the film he was meant to make, but that the formula could grow old if he continued to use it for subsequent films. Two years later, his sophomore effort Duckweed
came out of the competitive Chinese New Year box-office slot with a gross of over one billion yuan and strong reviews. Han Han will perhaps always write about headstrong young men on a journey of growth, discovery and destruction, but with Duckweed
, he's taken that journey in another direction with a different tone.
Deng Chao and Eddie Peng serve as the troubled duo of Duckweed: hot-headed racing champion Tailang and his estranged father who regularly beat and dressed him down growing up. The wedge between father and son goes back far: Tailang's father was away in prison when he was born and his mother passed away. An accident sends Tailang back to 1998 where he befriends his father Zhengtai in his youth, back when he was the loyal hot-headed leader of a small-time gang that ends up in big-time trouble. The magical episode gives Tailang the precious opportunity to meet his mother and to better understand his father who paid a grave price for the hot-blooded actions of youth.
The aimless young men, suspended reality, nostalgic indulgences and sly references and humor common to Han Han's works are still present, but there is an unabashed warmth and sentimentalism to Duckweed that feels markedly different than his previous stories. Carried by strong themes of family, friendship and reconciliation, the film is characteristically clever and absurd in parts, but not aloof or cynical. Tailang and Zhengtai may be impulsive troublemakers, but they're both simple-hearted men with nary a sardonic thought.
Even with the frequent violence, Duckweed is softer and more audience-friendly than The Continent, while also being more focused and sharply directed. Further adding to the commercial appeal, Han Han upgraded the star power another notch with box-office forces Deng Chao and Eddie Peng and television queen Zanilia Zhao. The undeniably nice and sentimental core of Duckweed may indicate to some that the enfant terrible who shook China at age 18 has sold out, but it also signifies the natural growth of Han Han, who is now older, calmer and the doting father of an adorable daughter.
For years, Han Han was the post-80s literary icon who somehow has the cake and eats it too, the cynical wunderkind who achieved rock star status and enough riches to support a side career in auto racing, all while thumbing the establishment just enough to ruffle some feathers and resonate with the young and disaffected. Han Han the writer managed to be dissonant without being dissident, popular without pandering. His best-selling novels divided literary critics, but could not be dismissed in the way that Guo Jingming's young adult novels were. Now, he's doing the same as a director.
Is Han Han selling out? Maybe, but he's still creating quality work in the process. I would still prefer if Han Han was writing novels rather than making films. But if transitioning to the latter is where he's heading with his career, I will look forward to his films the same way I looked forward to his novels.