DESIRE GAME (2019) review

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Ambitiously, Guo Tao has made science-fiction the genre of his directing debut, Desire Game. In it, he plays Guo Shi, the brilliant creator of the Butterfly, a still-in-development, revolutionary virtual reality system. But when his daughter falls to her death while entranced in the immersive effect of the Butterfly, he withdraws from public life and scientific research, becoming estranged from his wife (Mei Ting) and leaving his partner (Fan Wei) in charge of their company. One day, a young woman (Gai Yuexi) whose car broke down takes shelter at his villa; she then seduces him, only to be found dead in his car a few hours later. Guo Shi understands he’s being framed for murder, and can only rely on the help of his former disciple (Jiang Chao) and a homeless girl (Zhang Zifeng).

After last year’s Dream Breaker, here’s another long-delayed, instantly-dated Chinese science-fiction film revolving around virtual reality. Indeed, Desire Game squanders a handful of good ideas – VR as a kind of nesting dolls of human conscience, and the immediate physical hazards of VR’s immersive nature – by encasing them is a stock ‘framed for murder and on the run’ thriller template and risibly pandering to the Young Adult crowd: Guo Shi’s disciple is a scientist and a pop star. He even gets an eye-gouging concert scene with holograms that feels like a corduroy-wearing stepfather’s sad attempt to take part in his teenage stepdaughter’s enthusiasms. Set in 2026, the film’s representation of that near future is somewhat lazy, reduced to a handful of concept cars, a few passers-by wearing futuristic-looking glasses, and some slapdash CGI-enhanced cityscapes of Shanghai.

There’s a fine cast – plus Jiang Chao, who’s painful to watch – but they’re all stuck in one-note role, from Guo’s hangdog to the excellent but ever-underused (on the big screen at least) Mei Ting standing on the sidelines, wringing her hands. There’s also Zhang Zifeng going overboard with a shrill, cutesy act, and Gai Yuexi overplaying the ingenue seductress. Only Wei Fan has knowing, measured fun with his ambiguous character. Plenty of cameos of friends of Guo Tao (Song Jia and Wen Zhang as a bickering couple, Liu Hua as an old drunk…) are amusing, but oddly light-hearted in what fancies itself an edgy cautionary tale.

Long Story Short: A few interesting ideas are smothered by a pedestrian narrative, tonal inconsistencies and a stylistically dated feel in Guo Tao’s directing debut. *1/2

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