March 21, 2013
Return Ticket - China/Taiwan, 2011
Years from now when people look back at the sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers, I hope they look beyond multimillion dollar productions like Confucius and The Founding of a Republic and focus their attention on the smaller independent films that were often ignored at the box office. It is these films, films that do not try to dazzle people with special effects or martial arts action, that truly capture what it is like to live in these times, which means that the stories they weave are not always ones people want to see after a long week on the job. Return Ticket is one of these films. It is not a plot-driven film, nor does it contain explosions, large armies engaging in sensational armed conflicts, or Wushu experts doing battle in midair. Instead, it depicts the daily lives of four individuals who are far from home and for whom life has not been without hardship. Much of the most dramatic events in these characters’ lives have already taken place, and most of what we see involves everyday actions of quiet survival – working a dead-end job, traveling on bicycle to find a day’s work, bringing something to a loved one so that we know she is taken care of. As the film progresses, we see examples of inequality and resilience, of greed and generosity, and of forgiveness and the often unintentional permanence of spoken words. The film is a passionate, yet quiet plea for compassion and understanding at a time when too many people are desperately in need of both.
Return Ticket is the true story of four migrant workers from Fuyuan, China, who are struggling to make ends meet in Shanghai, a city that represents opportunity and prestige to many people in the countryside. The film first introduces us to Cao Li (Hailu Qin), who is returning to Shanghai after a tumultuous experience running a small business. Upon arriving, she is reunited with Xie Qing (Qun Tang), an older woman from Fuyuan, from whom Cao rented a room in the past and from whom she will rent the same room again. It is easy to understand why. Completing the foursome are Gou (Bin Bin Li) and Jiuzi (Yiquan Shen). Gou would be a natural leader if he were able to offer anything more than a cleaning job at a KTV parlor that may or may not be a front for prostitution. In one scene, we see what one of these rooms looks like after a long session of singing and drinking, and it’s not the kind of place you would wish on even the rudest of cleaning ladies. Jiuzi is perhaps the most sympathetic of the group. Mute, he gets by by passing out fliers and taking odd jobs, and he doesn’t seem to have much to show for his efforts. However, watching the way he pursues an idea is truly inspiring.
What little plot there is in the film involves Cao Li, Gou, and Jiuzi’s attempt to fix up an old, rundown bus and use it to shuttle Chinese New Year travelers to Fuyuan and back. In one of the film’s best moments, Cao Li reminds Gou that he doesn’t have a driver’s license. Let’s see if the trip is a success first, he replies. Other interactions are equally memorable, and they tell the audience a lot about the characters and the bond that exists between them. I was particularly moved by a conversation between Cao Li and her roommate concerning Cao Li’s father and parents in general. Their words make it clear just how much miscommunication there is between parents and children, especially when one expresses their feelings in ways the other is unable to interpret correctly. I also enjoyed the caustic banter between Gou and Jiuzi. It reminded me that sometimes sarcasm and the ability to laugh in the face of difficulty are what sustain us.
The film is directed by Yung-Shing Teng, who, according to IMDB, made a name for himself as a director of television commercials in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. This is his second film, following his oddly titled 2003 film, Love at 7-11, a film that I have not seen but imagine takes place in Taiwan. It’s not always easy to get a read on a director from just one film, yet it seems to me that Teng’s work on commercials has been an asset to him. He displays a impressive knack for timing, ending some scenes before they have a chance to become awkward and allowing others to continue a bit after the dialogue has ended. He seems to understand that his actors can express a great deal by just looking at the camera. With the exception of Hailu Qin, the cast is made up of non-professionals making their acting debut, yet they handle themselves as if they had been appearing in front of the camera all their lives, another sign of a skilled director.
Like many of the films I respond to best, Return Ticket is only a portion of a much longer story, one we will never see. The events in the film represent a turning point for one of the characters and a new beginning for a character that actually never appears on screen. However, the others will return to the lives they had when the film began, albeit a little wiser for the journey. Life is sometimes like that. The film ends with brief explanation of what happened on the trip back to Fuyuan. Viewers should not fret, though; there wasn’t an accident or a devastating tragedy. There was, however, a humorous incident that I wish had been filmed. And maybe that is what’s best about Return Ticket: it’s a compact film that tells a simple and moving story, and when it’s over, it leaves you longing for more. A nice job, indeed. (on DVD in Region 3)
3 and a half stars
*Return Ticket is in Chinese with occasionally inaccurate English subtitles.