Director: Tan Bing 檀冰
Genre: Drama / Mystery
Running Time: 90 minutes
3/5. A confident return to the world of Chinese cinema for Bai Ling.
Following the death of an artist in suspicious circumstances, police soon find themselves a suspect: a woman that posed for a painting of his, Bai Wei (Bai Ling 白靈). Having fallen for a local artist turned barkeeper, Tu La (Zhaoyan Guozhang 趙燕國彰), she enters into an agreement with a wealthy art collector Lu Li (Tao Hong 陶紅). Lu will help her escape; in return, she will help Lu secure the painting she wants Tu to paint for her. However, they are both unaware of Lu’s unusual taste in art…
It is hard to believe that we are approaching 40 years since Bai Ling made her debut in China in 1984. For the last 20 of those, she has been largely absent, having fallen out with the authorities in China in the 1990s following her appearance in Red Corner, which was critical of human rights abuses in China (and also sucks, unfortunately). Since then, she has made a career in Hollywood, be that on film or on TMZ. The Fatal Contract sees her first return to a mainland Chinese production since then, although she has been involved in Hong Kong cinema since the mid-2000s.
The Fatal Contract is an assured return, with director Tan Bing keeping the story moving at pace. The setting is a generic wintery North China, but it’s perfect for this kind of noire-inspired crime drama, as seen in the fantastic Black Coal, Thin Ice. It’s a style which I feel Chinese film makers are becomingly increasingly confident in, and whilst The Fatal Contract is not the best example I’ve seen, it is eminently watchable, especially towards the end as the various plot strands start to come together.
The opening 20 minutes can be disorientating, as events are not linear. However, almost every scene contributes towards the well-executed finale, which is a sign of intelligent writing. Unfortunately, none of the characters are anything deeper than an idea: Bai Ling is a standard mysterious-but-damaged beautiful woman; Tu La is a tortured artist with a tragic past; and Lu Li is a wealthy-and-devious divorcee.
Thankfully these shortcomings are forgivable because the actors work well within the confines of their roles. Although you may not bring yourself to really believe in any of the characters, you’ll still find yourself engaged in their world.
I am not one to normally comment on actor’s looks beyond its cinematic worth, but I feel compelled to do so briefly today. How Bai Ling looks as good as she does at the age of 51 is really quite something. I defy anyone to guess anywhere close to her age from her appearance in The Fatal Contract. It would be nice if she could share her secrets with the rest of us. Failing that, I hope that this proves to be the beginning of more roles in Chinese productions in the next few years.
Overall, The Fatal Contract gets enough things right to be worthy of a recommend. At 90 minutes, proceedings never drag out, and the story has enough twists and revelations that even the best detectives won’t have everything sussed until late on.
Note: I am currently unsure of the Chinese name of this film because the distributor has not provided it to me. I will update after receiving confirmation.