If Are You Lonesome Tonight? makes your memory stray to A Brighter Summer Day, that’s intentional. Save for taking their titles from the same Elvis song, the two films have very little in common. That doesn’t stop Wen Shipei from forcing the comparison, repeatedly playing the song and making obvious visual reference to Cat’s performances in Yang’s film. But recalling A Brighter Summer Day neither does the film any favors by comparison nor establishes a link between the two. Instead, like the film’s original title, Tropical Memories (almost certainly a reference to Apichatpong Weerasethakul), it’s endemic of portentous festival film trappings hoisted onto a middle-of-the-road thriller that can’t support the weight of its director’s pretensions.
Eddie Peng plays Xue Ming, an air conditioner repairman who kills a man in a hit-and-run accident and, looking to make amends, insinuates himself into his widow’s (Sylvia Chang) life. But there’s more to the accident than what is initially apparent, and soon Xue Ming finds himself embroiled in your standard neo-noir crime story collision course. The narrative Wen is weaving is a familiar and fairly shallow one involving a hazily-remembered night, a bag of money, and some gangsters out to collect, and, in individual scenes, Wen hits the right notes competently if unexceptionally. Trouble is, he’s chosen to tell this story with fractured chronology and a sad-sack voice-over delivered by Xue Ming from prison. It adds about as much as the constant refrain of the title song, which is to say almost nothing save for applying an artsy sheen to the labored endeavor. At first, the nonlinear approach seems poised to lend the film the fractal quality of memory, as if the lead recalling the events would naturally remember the story out of order, but as the thriller plot begins to kick in, the technique is largely used only to superficially complicate the action and show off the simplistic web being constructed. The result is a back-half that gets bogged down in the actions of barely-defined bit players at the expense of the relationship between Xue Ming and Liang Ma. Worse, a few moments in which characters reveal vital information to one another are robbed of any dramatic impact that Wen intends because we have already seen the future here. If Are You Lonesome Tonight? were told conventionally, would it still play Cannes? Maybe not but, freed of its heavy-handed strides toward art, it likely would have been a better movie.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.