The year is 1997. An Ox is glistening in the sunlight, before a tragic incident on a darkened road. A young man, distracted by his own messy vehicle, accidentally hits a random passerby. Instead of aiding the bleeding man, he leaves the crime scene; abandoning the mysterious body on the road for the time-being. In essence, this seemingly simple setup to Wen Shipei’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? contains all the right ingredients for a satisfying melodrama. In practice and execution on the other hand, Shipei’s innovative form behind the camera demonstrates a unique understanding for a completely different sub-genre. In Are You Lonesome Tonight?, Shipei infuses a non-linear structure, slick-pans, arresting colour-correction, and sexy cross dissolves — all to accomplish the emulated effect of a riveting noir.
Visual language is ultimately the key to Shipei’s cinematic success, where the majority of the film is conveyed through blunt albeit necessary gestures and visual motifs. A particularly notable nod is the brief appearance of a missing-person poster folded into a paper airplane, that diverts our lead protagonist ‘Wang Xueming’ down a rabbit hole of guilt and madness. A missing husband, a frenzied suspect on the run, and a widow eerily conforming with her own grief. All the classic ingredients for an evocative noir are present; only this time remixed with alternating perspectives and twisted revelations. Sound cues also aid the world building. VHS static and audio interference from defunct radios supplement the period-era aesthetic, by further weaponising these sounds against our paranoid anti-hero. The scene of the crime blurs the line between reality and fantasy through image and sound, as Wang attempts to reassemble his every move, his every action, and his every regret.
The non-linear structure isn’t employed for a needless aesthetic either. It’s an important storytelling tool, where the structure amplifies the hazy framework of Wang’s susceptible memory. The tension is excavated not from the crime itself but rather the concluding moment of reconciliation and self-improvement when Wang is eventually incarcerated. However, the structure is eventually wasted with a sudden third-act narrative gambit, where the film vapidly introduces a subplot involving a mysterious bag of money and a violent criminal. The late narrative switch only creates further confusion, amidst the film’s alternating perspectives. The action is beautifully choreographed, but the earnest moments of infused guilt and thematic honesty are lacking within these select aforementioned scenes.
The final act leaves an unproductive after-taste; for a film that so meticulously sets up its thematics and payoffs with great ease. For a feature debut, the opening two acts of Are You Lonesome Tonight? can almost be seen as the work of a great master; a pure moral fable disguised as a subversive crime drama. It’s the narrative turnarounds that ultimately conflict with Shipei’s stellar direction; in a film that expertly infuses homage and morality throughout the barren witching-hour streets.