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FREE AND EASY Is an Absurdist Spin Into Hong Kong Nihilism (Sundance Review)

FREE AND EASY Is an Absurdist Spin Into Hong Kong Nihilism (Sundance Review)

In a hollowed-out industrial town in Northeast China, a crooked man (Zhang Zhiyong) pretending to sell soap robs unassuming victims who collapse after smelling his samples. He’s well-dressed, armed with a gun that’s probably real, and he’s one of several main characters in Free and Easy waiting for some unseen force to alter him in a meaningful way. Or not. He seems casually miserable no matter what comes his way. Theft, sexual assault, murder–everything is a canvas to prove how life is calmly meaningless.

There’s also a monk (Xu Gang) pulling a similar con, a generous-but-dim Christian boy looking for his lost mother, a government landscaper hunting a tree-thief, his wife (who is the only one who seems human), and two cops bored out of their uniforms. All together, they wander through maliciously humorous blunders, several cigarettes, and a lot of existential crises.

Writer/director Jun Geng positions each of these figures as darkly comic chess pieces orbiting red-bricked dilapidation and the raw emptiness of fallow fields. Free and Easy (a gorgeously ironic title) fits in well with absurdist works like Waiting for Godot or anything by Eugene Ionesco–it’s a bleak offering where crime (and everything else) is shoulder-shrugged out of mind. Victims become bullies, enemies become friends, and all of it happens with a deliberate lack of emotional logic, surrounded by a remarkably empty block of beaten-down apartments.

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These half-dozen figures are somehow stranded in the wilderness, with only each other to care for or cannibalize, which leads to slyly ridiculous situations like a man slapping himself 22 times as an apology, or cops blithely sharing whatever pills they have on them.

The ensemble seem to be the only people living in a town stuffed with doorways and front porches, which creates a nagging, theatrical unease about everything that happens. It’s an alienating experience dotted by a few guilty laughs. Why are they there? Where do they get their food? What do they even need the money they’re stealing for? Like any good absurdist piece, the film isn’t concerned with answering anything in this neighborhood. The people are there; how they got there doesn’t matter. Neither does much of anything else.

Everyone speaks and relates to each other in deeply affected ways, with most conversations devolving into some strange truth about life or some wry joke about it (or both at the same time). The Soap Salesman continues about his business, the cops fail on every level, the Christian makes best pals with the wicked monk, and so it goes. All relationships are mutable, and no one achieves any of the goals they half-heartedly set for themselves.

It’s difficult not to read Free and Easy as a satirical howl at the moon since it comes out of Hong Kong–a region fresh off massive protests against China for free and fair democratic elections. The movie puts a simulacrum of freedom on display, going through motions without anyone ever escaping the way-station. Like pawns on a board imagining they can go wherever they please, or addicts who swear they can quit any time, every character is nailed in place even as they carry themselves with confidence and power. The presence and positive portrayal of the young Christian juxtaposed with a crass monk who turns out to be a con artist is the most obvious bit of shocking artistic freedom against the Chinese system.

Regularly stunning, Free and Clear is shot with ugly clarity, like a post-urban anthropologist seeking to frame stranded inhabitants firmly inside their desolate habitat.

The film’s fatal flaw is its unbearably slow pace. Specifically, how long people take to respond to one another, as if they’re all connecting via satellite despite being in the same room. This silent treatment is clearly purposeful, but while walling off the characters from each other, it creates a thick barrier between the characters and the audience, too. It’s the kind of technique that should make for a staunch divide between soaring appreciation and using Free and Easy as a sleep aid.

There are certainly moments of delight–including an extended sequence where one cop tries to chase two groups of people at once–but unless you’re doing the hard work of mining for meaning in the meaninglessness (or ready to raise a fist in the air), it’s a bleak, difficult trudge through the snow.

3 out of 5 nihilistic burritos

3 burritos

Images: Blackfin Culture & Media Co., Ltd.

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