In an era of throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks cinema, denoted by dizzying camera work, haphazard quick-edits, and a visual cacophony of theme park madness meets video game ADD theater, finding such a brilliantly quiet, considered and targeted film as Jun Geng’s Free and Easy is a pleasure for the true cinephile. Cleverly disguised as a grim drama (at least at first), this slow-cooker of a movie is actually an unbelievably black comedy, producing laughs from the darkest depths of the soul. Do not take this to mean that the film is cruel or overly violent. It is in fact, painfully empathetic, and challenges the audience to do the hardest thing of all: to laugh at itself. The triumph of Mr. Geng’s effort here is that he does not trick or manipulate the viewer into reaching this conclusion. Rather, he very respectfully lays out his case patiently in filmic language and offers the audience the time and space to arrive to that moment on their own. It’s a rare sort of dignity the director offers filmgoers – a respect for their minds and an ultimate faith that their individual journeys will catch up to the flavor of his cinematic recipe.
The film centers around a wandering con artist, played brilliantly by Zhang Zhiyong, in the same subdued manner which every actor in the film adheres to (each in their own way). He arrives in a town which represents a world literally crumbling around humanity. Dilapidated buildings abound, constructs of vain endeavors, replete with cracked paint jobs, broken windows, poor craftsmanship and obvious neglect. On top of that, fallow fields surround the area against a bleak Bergman-esque milieu of waning winter light. Every exterior shot is framed with filters of thick cloud layers and haze, save one near the end, where the sun finally makes an appearance diminished by pollution. No set dresser could have achieved such a marvel – it’s obvious the crew found a real place to represent this imposing symbol of degradation.
As the con man progresses in his workings exploiting anyone he can find, we are introduced to the other players: a traveling monk seeking donations for his burnt out temple (played deftly by Xu Gang); an orphaned young man with limited mental abilities, hopelessly looking for his missing mother; two corrupt police officers who barely do their job; a woman who runs the boarding house where the con man nests; and her husband, a government official charged with the futile task of planting trees to replenish the destitute countryside, only to be faced with thieves literally chopping down his work every day. There is a sort of moral divide between the cast – those who are overtly crooked, those who are trying to be decent people, and those who might be in a greyer area. And yet, as the film reveals the secret motivations of each of them, a shared desire begins to emerge, one which everybody and anybody should relate to: the yearning to secure a dubious goal.
The interactions of the cast slowly bring their stories together in the most unexpected of ways. Some of the good people turn out to be bad. Some of the strongest people end up being the weakest among us. Precise and patient pacing allows the revelations to unfold from the germ of dramatic situations into flowering comedic climaxes which are utterly relatable. These aren’t big guffaws that we are talking about – fans of Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow won’t be satisfied here. Rather, sudden bursts of strained laughs reacting to the absurdity of flawed endeavors and cosmic juxtapositions erupt from a place that kind of hurts. It’s like a Chaplin film turned inside out, replacing optimism with unhappy resignation and frenetic action with a staid tableau of motivations and resolution.
For those with a patience for quiet discovery and a deep thirst for sublime expression, Free and Easy is an antidote to the noisy, haphazard samplings that sometimes pass for arthouse cinema. The very best elements of the works of Tarkovsky, Cassavettes and Uzo are utilized by Mr. Geng with the discerning economy and kinetic reverence of a master craftsman. He gently bludgeons us with a mirror image of how our own behavior degrades our societies, our relationships and even our planet. In the final scene, the director makes that mirror quite personal in a direct nod to the audience that all but tears down the fourth wall to great effect. Besides the obvious final frame – which may shock careful viewers – Geng purposefully abandons the wan color palate which permeates the work, reversing to a wash of hues which brings us back into “our world” and puts the audience into the film as the final character.
But that was really the whole point all along. The director understands that everybody seeks a “free and easy” path to their goals and desires. And with this film, he shows us, we really need to be a lot more mindful if we are ever to acquire meaningful boons. Otherwise, as a thief in the film explains to a mugging victim, we will all fall into a losing paradigm. “There are so many crooks around these days,” he says. “They don’t give us a choice.” Mr. Geng, his writers and cast won’t let us steal some simplistic message from the passage of this film. Rather, he is challenging us to earn a more difficult and ultimately more rewarding experience.