Do you ever see a film that’s so unusual you have no idea what to make of it? New Years’ Eve is one such movie. An import from China New Year’s Eve takes a salesman’s pitch to 3 college students and takes it to unpredictable directions. It’s still a well-made film, but writer/director Ma Xiang sneaks themes under unpredictable human behavior. But let’s try it.
On New Years’ Eve, college roommates Li (Peng Yusi) and Guo (Qin) and Mo (Xie Yuchon) celebrate Mo’s birthday. At the same time, an elderly salesman tries his luck selling his products on campus. Due to privilege guilt, the boys bring have the Salesman join them for some vodka and roasted chicken. What starts out as a friendly conversation, descends into violent screaming match as repressed regrets seep through.
The film plays like stage play. The film takes place in one room. Most of the tension is channeled internally, via subtext galore. But like some of the best stage plays, New Years’ Eve uses a non-event like a birthday party to examine the dynamic of relationship and dig into the hidden psyche behind these relationships. In most of these plays, the story will take unpredictable yet fascinating directions.
Unfortunately, it places movie reviewers like me in an interesting position. With writing reviews comes the task of figuring out how much to reveal to the reader and what should be left out. This film’s changes so much in turn that it’s hard to tell what part I shouldn’t spoil for the audience. Most notable is the opening scene, which takes place on a freeway. Considering how this scene ends, I’m not even sure if I should reveal how it relates to the rest of the film.
There is however, one notable consistent theme which comes in the form of Wang (Yu Yadong), the bane of Li, Guo and Mo’s existence. As their roommate, Wang bullies these three and anyone who crosses his path. This character is so cartoonishly evil that he actually carries a copy of Mein Krampf. What does makes up for this one dimensional character is the realistic and complex way the characters react to them. The trio spends their time with the Salesman seething their hatred towards Wang. They three spend the day claiming they’re going to stand up to Wang, but every time he shows up, these timid guy grovel into their respective corners. The salesman tries to psyche the boys into standing up for themselves, but this soon takes a disturbing turn.
Of all of the films of this festival, this one is the least conventional. For those tired of conventional romantic comedies or blockbuster bait, New Years’ Eve provides a breath of fresh air. Writer/Director Ma Xiang takes a straightforward plot and twists it with complicated human interaction and social commentary. He hides themes deep within the story, asking the audience to find them. As a result, audience members are taking a major gamble seeing this film. Either they’ll be engrossed by the portrayal of relationships or confused by the plot. What is guaranteed is each audience member will come out of it with their own unique idea of what the film’s theme is.