THE DEAD END (2015) review

p2262236348Seven years ago, Xin Xiaofeng (Deng Chao), Yang Zidao (Guo Tao) and Chen Bijue (Gao Hu) broke and entered in a house near Xilong City, looking to collect a debt on behalf of a local loan shark. Things went from uglier to much uglier as they ended up not only killing the old couple in debt, but also raping and killing their granddaughter. They were never caught and now live new lives in Xiamen: Xin as a policeman, Yang as a cab driver, and mentally-challenged Chen as a fisherman. Gnawed by remorse and certain they will be caught sooner or later, they jointly care for their adopted daughter Weiba, who may be the daughter of the woman they raped. The expected yet much-feared reckoning draws closer as Xin’s new boss, Yi Guchun (Duan Yihong), comes from Xilong City, and is still obsessed with solving the seven-year old rape and murder case, not yet knowing that the subordinate he’s growing to like and respect, is one of the perpetrators. And things get more complicated when Yi’s younger sister Guxia (Wang Luodan) falls in love with Yang after he rescues her from a purse-snatcher.

As in many of Cao Baoping’s films, including those he only produced, fate plays a major role in The Dead End. In fact, fate may be considered to play too major a role: the one-two coincidence punch of Duan Yihong’s Yi being unknowingly assigned to the same precinct as one of the men he’s been tracking down for years and his sister meeting and falling in love with another one of the perpetrators, has an air of profound convenience that can either be seen as screenwriting laziness, or as the artistic intent to render the very essence of Karma – or simply pre-ordained comeuppance – in cinematic terms. After all, the film’s title in the beginning appears onscreen after the camera pulls out from Xin and Yang’s ground-level to way beyond the clouds, as if taking the point of view of a god or grand architect of fate. Other contrivances, such as Yi’s investigation being immeasurably helped by the fact that Yang’s landlord is a wiretapping weirdo, or a very convenient final confession by a character heretofore never mentioned, don’t have the luxury of potential allegorical intent, and simply appear forced. Censorship similarly tends to contrive the film, with a tacked-on coda that makes sure no one guilty gets out scot-free (it doesn’t help that the actor playing the character in question was arrested on drug charges, and thus made persona non grata in any film).

Still, Cao Baoping directs his biggest film so far with great confidence, all simmering tension exacerbated – but not released – in a superb chase scene (coordinated by Bruce Law) on the side of a skyscraper, both a riveting set piece and an apt metaphor for its lead trio of culprits, struggling for redemption on the edge of a pit of despair and guilt. And the film is carried by a trio of strong performances: Deng Chao, much like in Cao Baoping’s film before that, The Equation of Love and Death, is affecting while remaining a cypher for much of the film’s runtime, a difficult effect to pull off; Duan Yihong is a compelling figure of a man committed to – yet struggling with – the concepts of law and justice, while Guo Tao is excellent as ever despite being saddled with a romantic subplot with an underused Wang Luodan that strains credulity.

Long Story Short: A strong mix of tragedy and thriller, running on a few contrivances too many. ***

 

 

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