In ‘Mr. Six,’ China’s Changing and Staying the Same

Playing an aging gangster railing against the “little punks” who kidnapped his son in Beijing, Feng Xiaogang gives a solid performance as the title character of Mr. Six: a gravel-throated vigilante shaken when his go-it-alone rescue effort puts him on a collision course with a world that’s much bigger and more complex than the one he’s used to.

It is doubtful that director Guan Hu’s overly long film (137 minutes) will draw much of a crowd in North America beyond its first days in select big-city theaters on the coasts—the screening at the AMC Empire 25 in New York sold out on a recent Sunday afternoon (December 27) to an almost entirely Chinese audience. Still, for the atmosphere alone, it would be a great service if television programmers had the vision to offer Middle America this peek at what it might feel like to be a regular resident of the capital of the world’s No. 2 economy as the wealth gap grows ever wider and the government intensifies an ongoing crackdown on corruption.

Guan beautifully captures Beijing’s Houhai neighborhood in winter—the labyrinth of hutong, or alleys, stocked with pajama-clad old folk, the merriment in bars encircling the frozen lake. Feng’s Mr. Six ice skates to relax, a transistor strapped to his waist playing old radio dramas read by guys even more gruff-sounding than he. And he needs that downtime. The byways of sooty Beijing have come alive with too many cars, glass towers are springing up, people are getting rich and isolated, and the old locals are pitted against one another in the low-lying city center.

In his neighborhood, Mr. Six commands respect as he walks a slow beat, offering wisdom and meting out justice. He orders a pickpocket to return his mark’s identification card by mail, and insists a local cop who has struck an unlicensed peddler allow the peddler to strike him back. To his friends, including his talking myna bird (a staple of Old Beijing), he spits quiet contempt at society’s lack of a moral compass, all between deep drags on his ever-present cigarette, smoked to spite a weak heart.

When his son Bobby (actor and singer Li Yifeng) is caught keying the candy-apple red Ferrari belonging to pretty-boy thug Xiao Fei (Canadian-Chinese actor and singer Kris Wu), the gang’s ransom for Bobby’s freedom is set at 100,000 RMB (roughly U.S.$15,400)—well above the average Beijing annual wage. Afraid to involve the police and trigger greater retaliation from Xiao Fei’s high-ranking-official father, Mr. Six scrapes together the money from old friends, his anger seething just beneath the surface of a poker face that would make Clint Eastwood proud. (Feng, 56, one of China’s leading directors and the man behind the 2003 classic Cell Phone, was named Best Actor for Mr. Six at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards in November.)

The first half of the film is very good, but once the ransom exchange sours and is replaced by an extrajudicial plan for a mob fight between the gang of young, spoiled, souped-up exotic car owners and the crusty oldsters just trying to get by, the story unravels into loosely connected scenes seemingly designed to emphasize, repeatedly, that wealth does not result in bliss. In much of the third act, the only lines not scanning like hard-boiled quips from a gangland caricature came from the underutilized actress Xu Qing, playing the appropriately nicknamed love interest “Auntie Chatterbox.”

Writer Dong Runnian and producers at Huayi Brothers drew inspiration for the villainous Xiao Fei from newspaper headlines from late 2012, when news leaked of the death of the son of a high-ranking official in a high-speed Ferrari crash, scandalizing the leadership transition at the top of the Chinese Communist Party and sparking public outrage at evidence of long-suspected excesses of the children of the power elite.

That 20-something villain in Mr. Six drives a Ferrari and is hiding information about a fat offshore bank account, but nonetheless gains respect for Feng’s humble gangster character, conforms with the tidy vision of conflict resolution that China’s film censors typically abide. While it’s notable that the film was approved for release in China and deals nearly head-on with topics that were verboten on screen a decade ago—e.g. modern day police violence and official corruption—it’s just as notable that Feng’s character chooses, in the end, to involve the authorities in his dispute, trusting that there lies a solution in trusting the government.

Pang-chieh Ho contributed reporting.