A OR B (2018) review

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Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zheng) is a ruthless businessman who made a fortune using insider trading and blackmail, with the help of his old partner Tang Wanyuan (Wang Yanhui). But this has been at the expense of his marriage with Wei Simeng (Wang Likun), who gave up her journalism career for him, but is now at the end of her tether and wants a divorce. One day, Zhong wakes up alone in his mansion: he’s been locked up in his bedroom, and the windows have been boarded up. A mysterious caller informs him that he has to play a game: he will be given a series of impossible choices between an agonizing option A (for example, publicly reveal he’s been evading taxes) and a no less agonizing option B (such as sacrificing a friend) – not choosing will result in both options being enforced. While trying to escape and discover the identity of his tormentor, Zhong can only count on the help of Tian Yu (Duan Bowen), a journalist he managed to contact with a talkie-walkie.

One in a recent line of Chinese thrillers culling – some would say pilfering – from certain sub-genres of 90s and 00s American thrillers, Ren Pengyuan’s A or B cross-breeds the respective concepts of a few ‘deadly game’ thrillers: David Fincher’s The Game (a cynical businessman’s heart starts to beat again when he’s thrust into an infernal machination), and James Wan’s Saw (a mysterious mastermind devises cruel games to enforce his own brand of morality). There’s also a dash of the “Simon says” antics of John McTiernan’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, and the “atonement by fire” of Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth comes to mind more than once. It’s a derivative film for sure, and to see Xu Zheng once again play a complacent, cynical jerk brought back to empathy through an unexpected ordeal doesn’t exactly feel fresh. Ample suspension of disbelief is required from start to end, and there’s a final twist many will see coming from miles away.

Nevertheless, it’s a solid thriller: that Xu Zheng has played this role many times before also means he can play it to perfection, and he anchors the film firmly, forming a touching and believable couple with a fine Wang Likun. Ren Pengyuan’s direction never tips into the flashiness that could have tempted many helmers when tackling such a concept, and while his script has its share of holes, it’s both enjoyably convoluted and rarely confusing, with a few clever surprises along the way – albeit ones that require additional suspension of disbelief. The  ending trips over itself somewhat to avoid the censorship that tends to hit Chinese films that dare to be amoral, but it nevertheless achieves a certain ambiguity: the machiavellian tormentor is far from a clear-cut bad guy. Simon Yam appears less than a minute but got his own character poster in the film’s marketing campaign, which either A. a clever red herring, or B. shameless false advertisement.

Long Story Short: A solid but derivative thriller, A or B requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief but is enjoyably convoluted and rarely confusing. **1/2

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