Mainland Chinese helmer Wang Chao finally attains an almost perfect balance between style and content in "Luxury Car," a tightly written and beautifully played drama centered on a karaoke bar escort girl and her elderly father who visits from the sticks. Though co-financed by the same French company behind Cannes competition film "Summer Palace," pic has none of the latter's Euro arthouse feel and boasts genuinely involving characters shaped by contempo society. "Car" looks likely to motor into select venues after tooling through the fest circuit.
Film is a quantum leap for Wang, now in his mid-40s, who debuted in Cannes' Directors Fortnight five years ago with the dryly humorous "The Orphan of Anyang" and followed that three years later with the exquisitely shot but emotionally lifeless "Day and Night," co-financed by the same Gallic shingle as "Car." Current item preserves the same tech finish but dumps the arty pretensions that hampered "Day."
Li Qiming (Wu Youcai, from legit), an aging country school teacher, arrives back in Wuhan, central China, after 40 years to find his son, Xueqin, to whom he hasn't spoken to in ages. His wife back home has uterine cancer and wants to see her son before she dies.
However, it is Li's daughter, Yanhong (rock singer Tian Yuan, from "Butterfly"), who puts her dad up at the apartment she shares with a hooker, A Li (Li Li). Yanhong says she's too busy to accompany her father on his search of the city, so, instead, Li is helped by an old cop (Li Yiqing, also from local legit), who's about to retire. The growing friendship between the two oldsters -- who share the sorrow of missing sons -- becomes one of the film's greatest pleasures.
Yanhong, who is actually the film's central character, can't follow her dad around because she works as an escort at a large karaoke club, whose "businessman" boss, He (Huang He), she's sleeping with and is also pregnant by. For appearance's sake, He pretends to be Yanhong's b.f. and shows respect to her father.
The quietly observant father soon figures out much of what is going on but doesn't raise a fuss and is heartened by news that his son may now be in Shenzhen (across from Hong Kong). The truth, however, is somewhat different, and events take a hand when war breaks out between He and another local "businessman" (Wang Guoqiang).
Aside from Wang's precise but unmannered direction, which accurately captures the tenor of life in contempo China, the movie is bolstered by perfs that say much more than is actually in the dialogue -- notably in a dinner scene among the four main characters prior to the climax.
Aside from vets Wu and Li Yiqing, as the father and cop, Tian more than holds her own as the bruised but resilient daughter. Huang, too, shades what is usually an overplayed role in Chinese cinema.
Helmer Wang has flagged the picture as the last in his trilogy on China's "dark side" of society. But its craft and greater accessibility also mark his coming of age as a moviemaker. Chinese title literally means "River City Summer Days," referring to Wuhan and its location on the Yangtze.
Camera (color), Liu Yonghong; editor, Tao Wen; music, Xiao He; art director, Li Wenbo; costumes, Zhao Yanjie; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Ran, Dominique Vieillard; assistant directors, Lei Yang, Xiang Yong, Liu Bokun. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 21, 2006. Running time: 88 MIN.