Review of One Foot off the Ground (鸡犬不宁; China, 2006), A Huayi Brothers Co. production
Director: Chen Daming
Producer: Chris Lee, Wang Zhonglei
Cinematographer: Yang Shu
Screenplay: Chen Daming
Editor: Zhou Hanliang, Chris Lee
Art Design: Han Chunlin
Music: Evan Chen, Ma Shangyou
Sound: Wang Xueyi
Cast: Xu Fan, Li Yixiang, Xiao Xiangyu, Jin Hong, Yao Lu
Running time: 102 MIN.
Release in China: October 25, 2006.
Shaoyi’s Rating: B- (Fair)
In its publicity campaign prior to the nationwide release, One Foot off the Ground was dubbed “Crazy Stone No. 2,” a reference to the small-budget miracle Crazy Stone that cost only 3 million RMB to make but made more than 20 million RMB in Chinese box-office alone. The film does bear certain superficial resemblance to Ning Hao’s Crazy Stone: both films speak local dialects (One Foot in Henan dialect, and Crazy Stone in Chongqing dialect), and both films are sugared with light-hearted humor for a wider audience, departing from the seriousness and artiness often seen in festival-oriented Chinese films. But the resemblance largely stops here, for One Foot off the Ground is more ambitious, oftentimes trying to say more than it can handle.
Set in Kaifeng, Henan province, a rundown city that prides itself as the capital of the Northern Song dynasty of China, One Foot off the Ground tells the story of a struggling local opera troupe and the uneventful lives of three leading performers after the troupe is forced to disband. In China’s march toward freewheeling capitalism, yuju, or traditional Henan Opera, is faced with a dwindling audience and lack of sponsorship. To add to this dismay, the troupe’s hard found sponsorship has gone missing after its director’s motorcycle crashes onto a suddenly stopped bus. At this point, the film cuts to the scene of three-month later, where the three leading performers start their lives anew: one opening a photo studio, one selling stolen dogs, and one trying to make a fortune in cockfighting. Although the three manage to get by, particularly the photo studio owner, who looks almost like a “new rich” thanks to his father-in-law’s support, they have to deal with new problems in their life: the dog-seller’s wife, who used to be a Henan opera star, returns back from the south and is suspected to have developed an extramarital affair with the troupe’s director, the cockfighting maniac finds his relation with his wife, both sexual and communicative, deteriorates day by day, and the photo studio owner is burned with a desire for a wannabe model, which sends his own wife on edge. As a dramedy (drama plus comedy), however, the generic convention requires a beefed-up finale. Thus, the dog-seller’s wife regains her husband’s trust, the cockfighting maniac’s wife comes back to her husband, asking for “forgiveness”, and the photo studio owner, out of nowhere, regrets his fancy for the young hot. This is compounded by the happiness of their master’s belated marriage and the news that the troupe is about to set off for Hong Kong.
Cinematically, the film is balanced and smooth in cutting and rhythm. There is nothing bold about filming, but it is also hard to identify any technical flaws. The major problem of the film, as said above, lies in its overextended ambition. It touches upon many social issues, such as unemployment, extramarital affairs, traditional culture vs. modernity, the nationwide “craze” for money, and dysfunctional family and sex, but to ask a less-than-two-hour-film to sufficiently address these is just too much. For a foreign audience, who is not necessarily updated with contemporary China and Chinese culture, One Foot off the Ground also suffers from a lack of focus: too many characters, too many side stories, and too much reliance on dialogue. Unlike Crazy Stone, which uses an emerald to weave together the plot line, the stolen purse in One Foot does not seem to play such a role, although the director’s intention might be the opposite.