TRIBECA 2021: ‘Wu Hai’ Is an Engaging Descent Into Financial and Emotional Misery

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Wu Hai

Fragile masculinity and debt is a dangerous cocktail that Zhao Ziyang explores in his new film Wu hai, a gripping spiral of desperation that had its North American premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

The life of Yang Hua (Xuan Huang) is falling apart. Debt collectors are knocking at his door, his wife Miao Wei (Yang Zishan) is increasingly distant, and the pressure of his wealthy parents-in-law is weighing heavy on him. His money went down the drain after a failed business endeavor involving a dinosaur park theme —, and his only remaining hope is the investment he made in his friend Luo Yo’s (Wang Shaohua) fancy holiday resort located in the desert. 

But Yang Hua has no time to wait for a return on investment, so ironically, he’s forced to work as a debt collector, and in doing so he meets a young, desperate, and extorted woman whose life went to hell after borrowing money from one of Luo Yo’s associates. 

Money is also derailing Yang Hua’s personal life. Miao Wei is pregnant, but can’t bring herself to reveal this fact to her husband. How can they raise a child with so many financial issues? Uncertainty and misery have created a rift in their relationship that, as shown in a lovely flashback scene, was once blooming with love. Yang Hua is not only dealing with his failures as a businessman but as a husband and lover too. Lack of communication and poor decision-making skills only make matters worse.

Ziyang presents a world ruled by the merciless grip of debt. Money is in everyone’s mouth and there’s no escape from its psychological effects. The sound of ringing cell phones and shouting is almost perpetual in Wu hai; Ziyang drags his main character down a dark hole of hopelessness and makes sure to try to take you along with him. 

Flashes of Uncut Gems will cross your mind while watching Yang Hua piling up mistake after mistake. At one point, the driving force of the film becomes our investment in his inevitable downfall. How will he finally reach the bottom? And, how many people will he drag alongside him?

The finale, however, becomes muddled by the director’s attempt at justifying the disgusting actions of his character. No amount of internal conflict can justify such actions and Ziyang trying to create some sort of empathy around them, almost collapses the entire film.

Wu Hai

The cinematography of Matthias Delvaux provides a powerful balance of naturalistic landscapes and intimate intensity. Poetic shots of the desert and the remnants of the dinosaur park theme become visual representations of both the isolation and frustration of the main character. But the film is most compelling in closed spaces when the focus is on Yang Hua’s anxious look while driving or during a superb long take involving an intense row between wife and husband.

Perhaps more remarkable is the subtle comedy that Ziyang displays among the conflicts. A well-timed gag involving musicians, a man entering into the fauces of a dinosaur, and an altercation involving a prosthesis shows the almost satirical approach in which the director approaches its subject matter. 

Wu Hai is a study on how money can annihilate love, mental health, and friendship. Zhao Ziyang covers as much ground as possible when trying to depict the consequences of usury, but his screenplay fails to thoroughly impress and ends up crashing right at the end of the journey. However, the bold direction, strong performances, and visual prowess provide enough power to engage, entertain, and even reflect. 

Wu Hai is now screening at the Tribeca Film Festival 2021 in both physical and virtual formats.

 

Wu Hai
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

Wu Hai is a study on how money can annihilate love, mental health, and friendship. Zhao Ziyang covers as much ground as possible when trying to depict the consequences of usury, but his screenplay fails to thoroughly impress and ends up crashing right at the end of the journey. However, the bold direction, strong performances, and visual prowess provide enough power to engage, entertain, and even reflect.