Film Review: The Wasted Times

Shanghai gangsters and lovers struggle through the Japanese occupation during World War II in an art-house misfire.
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Written, directed and edited by Cheng Er, The Wasted Times is a poorly digested amalgam of work by art-house filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Despite two of Asia's most accomplished stars and a plot laced with sex and violence, the movie is too confusing and poorly paced to find much of an audience here.

Cheng, who also wrote lyrics to two of the songs in the movie, chose to dismantle the structure of The Wasted Times into a smorgasbord of times and locations. The plot unfolds mostly between 1937 Shanghai and 1945 Luzon, focusing primarily on Lu (Ge You), a quiet, composed but ruthless mob boss first seen delivering an enemy the severed hand of his mistress.

Lu is part of a triumvirate of crooks who must decide whether or not to collaborate with Japanese occupiers. Lu's sister has married Watabe (Tadanobu Asano), an assimilated Japanese native who runs an ethnic restaurant. That's the setting for an arranged meeting with Japanese authorities. It ends in a bloodbath that apparently leaves everyone but Lu dead.

The crooks are powerful enough to control the movie industry, giving their mistresses plum roles. That lets Cheng parody period melodramas and the people who made them. Explaining why customers didn't like her last film, one actress explains, "It's an art film made for people of the next century."

Maybe Cheng thinks his true audience will be in the twenty-second century. It's hard to believe anyone today will enjoy this movie's glacial pacing, pointless digressions, frankly incomprehensible scenes, and heavy reliance on cliché. Gangsters kill people, actresses are practiced at deception, the poor envy the rich, war is destructive—The Wasted Times trots out these observations as if they were fresh.

Ge You's impassive demeanor still conveys a world of emotion, but he is asked to do comparatively little. The strikingly beautiful and talented Zhang Ziyi (Ge's co-star in 2006's The Banquet) is forced to undergo a graphic rape and years of imprisonment as a sex slave.

Cheng deserves credit for fashioning a glamorous pre-war Shanghai of Art Deco apartments, marble palaces, sleek limousines and expensive wardrobes, even if the settings often have a curiously deserted look. What The Wasted Times does with that world is depressingly pretentious, like its beautifully photographed puddles of blood pooling under innocent victims.

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