Geng Jun’s charming absurdist dramedy will leave you bewildered, amused and exhausted, all at the same time.
The third feature film from the Chinese director most certainly tests one’s patience. From the palpably long takes to the dry, curt dialogue, “Free and Easy” is a film that pushes its viewers. Even for its relatively short duration of 96 minutes, the Sundance-winner seems to last much longer than that. The meditative quality of Jun’s newest work relies on self-restraint and calmness. And for a quirky film like this one, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Free and Easy” tells the story of several quirky yet shifty individuals in a nameless northeastern Chinese town. Zhang Ziyong is a conman masquerading as a soap salesman. He is traveling through what seems to be an abandoned industrial town in the throes of winter. Here, he meets several eccentric characters who all seem to be con men in their own right. Whether it is religion or kung-fu lessons, everyone is peddling something in this winter wasteland. And with it, the circle of criminal shrewdness goes round and round. The scheme of one ties into another’s and yet another’s, creating a never-ending spindle of humorous deceit and lies.
The wonderfully laconic film takes its time to allow each character to brusquely speak their mind, all in a charmingly absurdist fashion. Meandering somewhere between Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers, “Free and Easy” relishes in its sardonic aura. The manner of speech and pacing allows each syllable to marinate in the viewer’s mind. Coupled with the expertly framed wide static shots and ultra precise comic editing, Jen’s newest film is a triumphant addition to the absurdist director’s catalogue.
And yet perhaps what is most difficult to digest for most viewers will be the somewhat awkward pacing of the film. Make no mistake, “Free and Easy” will test your patience. But what is so brilliantly charming about this film is exactly that–its pacing. This is a film that works off of its timing and temporality. By stretching what would normally be a 15 second dialogue shot into a one or two minute shot, the film pushes its audience to stay meditatively active. And if you do, it is immensely rewarding.
While certain aspects of the film are perhaps more difficult to culturally translate, the film nonetheless shines as an exercise in comical idiosyncrasy. Furthermore, the film’s Chekhov’s gun-like facetious use of mise-en-scéne is as precise as a surgeon’s scalpel. In a particularly memorable scene, the soap salesman points a fake gun at the bumbling buffoon of a police officer using his right hand. As the soap salesman is robbing the cop, he puts his fake gun in his left hand before taking the cop’s real gun and putting it in his right. Taking semiotics into account, it seems that the world is in order: the working gun is in the right–and thus “correct” hand–while the fake one is in the “unnatural” left hand.
But what the soap salesman then does next is bizarrely astute. He switches the guns from one hand to the other. Now the fake gun is back in his right hand and the real gun is in his left. It seems then that the character prefers the chaotic, unnatural and phony. The deliberate reversal from left hand to right back to left points out the quirky absurdity of Jun’s filmic universe. Therefore, the audience is deliberately told of the salesman’s internal disposition of a conman. For all intents and purposes, that is all he is in this world.
That laser-focused precision on Jun’s part is what makes “Free and Easy” such an enjoyable experience. While there is complexity, depth and multiple façades, there is an overt singularity to Jun latest work. The cohesiveness of the film makes for a joyful experience that is perhaps not for the short-tempered but still a wondrous exercise in charm, humor and profilmic execution. If “Free and Easy” is any indicator of Geng Jun’s future endeavors, then the filmic world can rest easy.
“Free and Easy” screened as part of Sundance’s World Dramatic section.