The Chinese title translates to “those with big ears have luck,” and its questionable whether the title character possesses either. Old Wang (Fan Wei), the just retired railroad worker, finds that he has a lot of time but not so much money. His grown children have moved away, and his wife (Cheng Shubo) is in the hospital and looks to be there for awhile. Thus, the prospect of going it alone after 40 years of routine might appear daunting. Old Wang, however, takes it all in stride in this bittersweet and unassuming film from first time director Zhang Meng.
Set against the backdrop of China’s fading industrial northeast, Lucky Dog offers a portrait of the everyday. It’s a movie that better approximates the average lives of most citizens than the many aspirational films on the wider market. The visual canvas bears the marks of the stagnant rust belt – scuffed walls, dingy rooms, crumbling building sites. But it’s this earthy milieu that allows the film’s roving hero to give color to his surroundings.
Most of the story takes place in the 36 hours following Old Wang’s retirement, during which time he does nothing spectacular. In a Leopold Bloom sort of way, he wanders around town by bike, running into old friends and complete strangers and chancing upon the odd and the ordinary in between visits to his wife. He has his interest piqued first by a roadside fortune telling machine doubling as a comic picture booth. Then he stumbles onto a community dance session that gets interrupted by the authorities before trying his hand at driving a bicycle rickshaw. He even manages to try out for a Chinese opera troupe.
He finds, or rather the audience does, that there is no shortage of people ready to take advantage of him or others. Even his own children exasperate him. A visit from Old Wang’s daughter and son-in-law ends badly when their marriage troubles spill over, ruining what was to have been a quiet retirement celebration. His son also appears nonchalant about the way he intrudes onto his father’s life.
Yet through it all, Old Wang goes on, without judgment. He isn’t a relentless optimist though, and the film is better for it. Zhang is careful not to romanticize his work, thus saving it from becoming another trite, quirky tale. Old Wang churns with real frustration and anger. Though his relationship with his daughter is only shown briefly, the scene offers a fine portrait of the character and points to the quality of filmmaking.
Zhang’s unobtrusive camera lingers over Old Wang’s preparations, allowing his scene and its emotions to ripen. Old Wang sits in his thermal underwear carefully peeling apples and filling a bowl with seeds. When his daughter arrives stone-faced, he knows she’s on edge but chooses not to chasten her and even gently encourages her to dress more warmly because of the cold. The scene is full of unspoken and some uncomfortable moments, achingly acted by Fan.
Neither Old Wang nor Zhang turn away, and this is what makes the character and film so appealing. People are often content to avoid what they dislike or what disturbs them, but Lucky Dog, and Old Wang in particular, sees and accepts, sometimes grudgingly, discomfort. One gets the sense that rather than backing away from a grubby windowpane, Old Wang would rub clear a spot in order to peer in, and then move on – unlike the emotions conjured from this film, which stay.
Prod: Liu Chun 刘春
Dir: Zhang Meng 张猛
Writer: Zhang Meng 张猛
Cast: Fan Wei 范伟; Cheng Shubo 程树波
Time: 96 min
Country: Mainland China