VORTEX (2019) review

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In Jacky Gan’s debut feature, Da Peng plays Liu Xiaojun, a washed-up car mechanic and a degenerate gambler, deep in debt and relying on the support of his deceased father’s partner in the police, Wang Yong (Cao Weiyu). To try and get out of a 100,000 RMB debt, a desperate Liu accepts work from shady car dealer Lao Wan (Cao Bingkun); the job is simple: steal unregistered cars and bring them to him, so that he can re-paint and re-sell them. But things go south very soon: as Liu is stealing the first car, he is chased and shot at by two criminals, Xia Tao (Sha Baoliang) and his brother Xia Xi (Oho Ou). And having just managed to escape them, he realizes there’s a little girl, Qi Qi (Wulantuoya Duo) tied up in the trunk of the car. Yet this vortex of misfortune seems like it might lead to riches: it turns out she was kidnapped for ransom by the two criminals, and when answering a call from her mother on a phone that was in the car, Liu realizes he might well be able to collect the 2-million RMB ransom instead of them…

This is an impressively assured debut for Jacky Gan: the script he wrote with Li Meng and Yi Hui is a rather beautiful piece of work: characters drawn concisely and effectively, twists and turns spiraling like a vortex but never straining credulity, and a heartfelt sense of humanity beating amid all the brutality. Some of these attributes recall Cao Baoping’s films, and indeed he is a producer here. Yet Gan’s film is no replica: Cao’s sense of irony is absent here, the debuting director going for visceral immediacy instead. This is all the more surprising as comedic actor Da Peng is the lead. Yet it’s a completely serious performance, and a remarkably successful one at that: the former TV presenter sheds his comedic persona completely, in favor of hangdog resilience and slowly-melting resentfulness. He’s a revelation, and makes for a memorable duo with remarkably gifted child actress Wulantuoya Duo, whose achingly expressive big eyes would almost merit of spin off of their own. And Li Meng (not the screenwriter), as a prostitute whose role in the cascading events is more than meets the eye, is simply superb in a role so conflicted it could explode any moment.

Gan’s direction is taut, all blistering confrontations in underground Chongqing, with Cheng Ma Zhiyuan’s evocative, neon-and-grime cinematography almost operating as the little girl’s point of view, casting the characters as strange guardians and frightful boogeymen in a twisted fairy tale – the excellent Oho Ou as an unstoppable thug appears at time like a kind of rampaging night creature, bald, hunched and with bloodshot eyes. And even if the score by Jiang Jianqiang and Li Ruoxi is at times incongruous (accents of the Italian western don’t fit this film in any way) and the finale is that of a more contrived thriller, clashing with the taut sense of surprise that came before, Vortex is one of the best Chinese films of 2019.

Long Story Short: Vortex is a blistering and heartfelt thriller, an impressively assured directing debut for Jacky Gan, and a career-redefining performance for Da Peng. ****

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