Film Review: Duckweed

Pleasant, undemanding dramedy uses time travel to let a son connect with a younger version of his estranged father.
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Famous in China as a racecar driver, singer, blogger and now motion-picture director, Han Han dips into sci-fi for his second feature, Duckweed. Geared toward his huge following in Asia, it's an easygoing coming-of-age story that's also a father-son bromance. Slipping comfortably from comic to dramatic passages, Duckweed is a bit too niche to attract much attention here.

Deng Chao, excellent as a tycoon in last year's Mermaid, plays confident, arrogant driver Lang, seen winning another race in the opening scenes. His father Zheng (Eddie Peng) lurks in the background until Lang singles him out for ridicule during his victory speech.

Lang's narration reveals that his mother Suzhen killed herself due to postpartum depression while Zheng was in jail. His father raised him roughly, leading to a break when Lang chose to focus on racing.

A car crash sends Lang back to 1995, where he encounters Zheng before his marriage. The leader of a small, hapless gang, Zheng runs a failing karaoke bar while peddling pagers and VHS tapes of Hong Kong movies. Also in the gang: sweet-hearted rube Liu Yi (Zack Gao) and outcast nerd Xiao Ma (Dong Zijian).

Zheng is engaged to Hua (Zhao Liying), not Suzhen, a problem if Lang ever wants to get conceived. He tries to break up their affair while helping Zheng defeat rival crook Luo Li (Zhang Benyu). A more difficult enemy is Huang Zhiqiang (Li Ronghao), a polished but deadly gangster with ties in Hong Kong who wants to take over the karaoke club.

That's a lot of exposition, but Han delivers it adroitly, spinning out funny montages to show Lang's upbringing and using a local cop (longtime star King Shih Chieh) to introduce the large cast. The episodic storyline leans on tried-and-true moments: visits to the local cinema, shared meals, drinking on rooftops. Lang begins to understand what drove his father and has a chance to meet the mother he never knew.

In the credits Han thanks Back to the Future and the far more relevant He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father (a Peter Chan drama) for inspiration. Han adopts the premise and settings of those films, but not their narrative drive. He tamps down Duckweed's sci-fi elements, and uses very few period jokes (mostly cheesy pop songs and those pagers). About the only real plot surprise is Ma's fate.

If Duckweed feels derivative, it's consistently appealing, thanks largely to fine work by Deng Chao and Zhao Liying. And Zack Gao is aces as a doomed sad sack only dimly aware of how others see him. Duckweed is entertaining enough, but there's almost no sense of urgency or logic to its story.

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