Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Wu Hai

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Yang Hua (Huang Xuan) has not been having a very good day, or week, or year in Zhao Ziyang’s Wu Hai. Hua has debtors tailing him at every corner after a failed investment into a dinosaur theme park, and his investment into his friend Luo Yu’s (Wang Shaohua) desert resort has so far coughed up nothing except empty promises. His wife, Miao Wei (Yang Zishan), has reached the end of her rope, and a surprise pregnancy doesn’t help things. In Wu Hai, money is truly the root of all evil; the characters may have flaws to begin with, but the debts they incur mercilessly bring out these flaws until the characters inflict misery both on themselves and everyone around them.

Thankfully, all this misery business does not make Wu Hai too dour to watch, due in large part to Huang Xuan’s performance. Given such a bleak script, it would have been easy for Huang to slip into melodrama, but instead he opts for a subtler approach; Hua fights to keep his encroaching sense of anguish clamped down, and so when he lets it out it becomes all the more powerful for the restraint shown before. The other actors turn in fine performances as well, but their characters largely stay on the sidelines, existing only to give Hua more grief and heartache.

Grief and heartache, however, are not enough to capture an audience, and Wu Hai often lags in spots and, despite Hua’s impending downfall, seems to lack much momentum. There are flurries of activity scattered throughout the film, such as a powerfully acted argument between Hua and his wife, but the lulls in between threaten to derail the film. More interesting parts of the film are left largely undercooked: the class insecurity that contributes to Hua’s crumbling mental state, obsession with status, the treatment and exploitation of women in order to climb the rungs of society. For a deliberately slow film that tries to be thoughtful in its handling of plot, these deeper aspects getting left behind is doubly frustrating.

Luckily, cinematographer Matthias Delvaux keeps the film looking good even as viewers’ interest in the plot might wane. Delvaux’s use of long takes builds tension in the film; instead of cutting rapidly to replicate a feeling of anxiety, he lets us linger as it slowly builds. This also allows the actors to play off each other without interruption, and we can watch Hua’s face run through the gamut of emotions all within a single take. One particularly evocative shot involves Hua climbing into the mouth of a T. rex statue, swallowed whole by capitalism, in the belly of the beast.

Wu Hai has enough engaging elements to elevate itself—namely, Huang’s performance and Delvaux’s cinematography—but those can only do so much. Had the script taken time to examine its components more in depth, Wu Hai could have been a searing commentary on China’s current economic system; as is, Wu Hai stands on the cusp of greatness but can never go over the edge. (In that, it might be a little like its protagonist.)

Wu Hai Trailer

Wu Hai played as part of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Release Date TBA.

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