Redemption With Life is a story of corruption and redemption — a “classic” rise and fall tale set within the anodyne world of finance and investment. It plays in a similar vein to its director Zhang Wei’s earlier Factory Boss (2014): both are “social realist” films that attempt to sketch the contours of work and exploitation, both opting for the hard-and-fast thriller as the vehicle to do so. We’re far from De Sica, but there are bikes.
One suspects — in the portrayal of murky business dealings here, centered around three old friends — that Zhang Wei is nudging us to think of Succession. There are also parallels to be drawn to Citizen Kane and certain Christian Petzold films. Redemption With Life veers chaotically through parties, bike garages, business meetings, and glitzy apartments, but the film frequently falls flat, the camerawork ambivalent to the film it seems Zhang is trying to deliver and the story he is trying to tell. The color grading is anemic, the blocking confused. There are scenes in which bikers prowl along motorways, where you can see the lens adjust — spurts of focus that shouldn’t be detectable to the eye. It should be incredibly difficult to empty the image of a motorbike growling through a city of its sexiness, but Zhang manages the feat. The languorously weird motorbikes of Easy Rider and Suzhou River and Hou Hsiao-Hsien have taken their place in cinematic history. This film takes another road.
It’s not that Redemption With Life is itself without redemption. It does an artful job of making gruesome the sterile non-places of hotels, offices, and conference halls — plastic banners emblazoned with shiny advertising slogans, a kind of gory shimmer of red and brown and beige. But these moments, including the tearing apart of an office by angry investors (an especially good scene, at least in an abstract sense), are deflated by the use of jittery slow motion. The same slowing is used to draw awkward attention to moments of narrative inflection, often accompanied by interstitial fades — and aural booms — that hurry us from scene to scene. It’s enough to make one wonder whether these showy and bloodless techniques are an effort to capture the shallow ostentation of new money and the corruption that pools around it, but such a reading is overly generous.
The film’s dialogue is often just as heavy-handed. “Profit’s all that matters,” remarks Jianhua, one of the film’s central trio. “Your line of work may bring fast money, but it’s way too risky,” counters his friend. We never really learn about the relationship between Redemption With Life’s hot-shot financier and his biker friends — except for a final act flashback that feels almost satirically on-the-nose — though there’s an actually quite good montage in the first third of the film, which introduces us to their differing lifestyles: corporate offices, spreadsheets on screens; bike garages; grungy warehouses. Here, the camerawork grows in confidence, a little, trading plosive zooms for something more glacial and winking. The Big Short comes to mind.
Elsewhere, we’re introduced to EDM-blasted nightclubs. We’re in restaurants and offices. People are eating steak, pushing it around on plates, and holding wine glasses at 35-degree angles. Everybody is blasting cigs. Anxious that we don’t read Jianhua’s business partner as a wolf, we watch him tuck into a steak and a glass of red shortly before a fat suitcase of cash is dramatically flung open. When we see him next, another steak and glass of wine are upon his table (this scene actually follows a scene during which Jianhua and his friends are also dining on steak – and wine). Is it possible to experience gout by association?
Frequently, this effect borders on the uncanny, as is the impression during a fight scene in a nightclub that has the look and feel of a drunkenly recorded iPhone video. Reflecting later, the bikers drop another heavy-handed object lesson: “You fought knowing you’d lose. With that kind of judgment, you shouldn’t be in finance.” Money corrupts! Bet you’ve never heard that one before.
As Jianhua later remarks: “In life, some debts must be repaid.” The message gestures toward redemption — it’s in the title, after all — but the attempt feels too anxious to avoid moral ambivalence, to steer clear of ambiguity. There’s also a lot of fighting. Friends will lunge at friends; investors will topple moneymen; bikers will chase thugs. It’s impossibly hard to keep up with all the steak and flying fists and suitcases of cash as the plot grinds and then blasts its way around the screen, subjected throughout to frequent flashbacks and flashforwards that feel like they’re really just trying to fill narrative holes. I felt dizzy. I’m also temporarily off steak.
Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2023.