Playing this week at the Pacific Place is Mr. Six, a gangster drama which earned star Feng Xiaogang the Best Actor award at this past Golden Horse Awards (which are held annually in Taiwan and honor Chinese-language film). Feng plays Mr. Six, an aging Beijing street tough, now in his late 50s, who gets caught in a rivalry with a much younger gang. With the deliberate pace of Sixth Generation realism, director Guan Hu deemphasizes the more lurid elements of the Chinese gangster film, focusing instead on Mr. Six’s character and the ways in which he interacts with a Beijing vastly different than the one he dominated in the 1980s. As such, the film provides a wonderful showcase for Feng, a director of popular comedies and occasional actor, whose best known work in the US is probably his dark and very serious 2006 Hamlet variation The Banquet, which starred Zhang Ziyi, one of the overblown period films that followed the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero early in this century. His Mr. Six is amiable and steely, a quiet authority barely concealing depths of anger and disappointment.
The plot is resolutely generic: Mr. Six’s 20-something son Bobby, resentful of his dad for various reasons, has been kidnapped by a gang of street racers. Mr. Six bargains for the kid back, strictly following a code that increasingly only he believes in, along a meandering plot that almost completely dissipates its momentum before a final charge that stretches beyond all reason into a beautiful act of futility. This technically is not a Triad film, as Triads are more specific to Hong Kong and Southern China and this is Beijing, though for film genre purposes the effect is the same, as the Triad film genre, like the Triads themselves, draw for their ideology on traditional wuxia stories. A code of honor that defines justice in human interactions as a matter of honesty, respect and reciprocity (it’s very similar to the samurai code you see in Japanese period and yakuza films: Mr. Six even has a katana as his most favored weapon). Mr. Six believes deeply in this code, he is its embodiment, while the kids, corrupted by capitalism and modern technology, are driven by simple self-interest. In this respect, the film it is most similar to is Jia Zhangke’s 2013 A Touch of Sin, which also used wuxia ideology to explore the decline of Chinese communities in the wake of the corrupt government’s experiments with capitalism. A Touch of Sin is a galvanizing, shocking film, brutal in its violence, a true work of outrage against a system. Mr. Six is more accommodating, housed in more personal (and thus dismissible, as in the government corruption at its heart) terms, while at the same time following a strictly by the numbers plot outline, with only occasional flashes of interest (the subtle condescension of an old buddy that leads to a Mr. Six explosion; an ostrich that makes up for its blindingly obvious symbolism with a simple joy of expression). While both films reportedly were passed by Chinese censors, A Touch of Sin has yet to officially play in China, while Mr. Six opened this past Christmas week to smashing success.