Written by Theng Kuo
Directed by Zheng Kuo and Sun Yang
Ming (Yang Shicong) lays atop a patch of grass on a sea-side cliff, the word ‘yes’ in torso sized letters written across the front of his shirt. As he stands to face the sea dotted with distant fishing boats, his shirt ripples in the wind, waving the bold letters ‘n’ and ‘o’ printed across his back. Burned Wings (2013) begins on serenity, but don’t be fooled, for this genre bloodbath is anything but serene.
From this reflective moment by the water we cut abruptly to a barber shop where, poised to attack, Ming holds another man firm against a wall. The room is silent as other characters stand frozen within the scene, positioned and brilliantly colored by Sun Yang’s cinematography like a well-crafted painting. The camera pauses on a full view of the room, giving us time to take in the vivid and tense moment that we’ve interrupted, before cutting to a point of view shot from Ming’s victim. Here we watch Ming’s face, lip twitching and eyes narrowed, as he lands a punch directly into the camera’s lens. Burned Wings is composed of scenes set up as deliberately and as eloquently as this; characters balanced in stillness awaiting that ever-impending punch.
Burned Wings is the first genre film by directors Zheng Kuo and Sun Yang. Winner of Best Feature at the 9th annual Beijing Independent Film Festival, it follows the escapades of a young group of hoodlums as they navigate the seedy and often ruthless streets of an unnamed coastal city in northern China. The film charts the group as they fight for power within the town. It begins with disputes between rival gangs, travels through a series of struggles with the police, then ends on a conflict with a local land developer. All the while the battling groups intertwine as characters weave in and out of positions of authority, thuggery and domesticity. Everyone is connected and no one is a hero. Burned Wings teases us to crave its violence and then is happy to deliver with tongue-in-cheek remarks alongside a dark wit. Burned Wings appeals to both the lurid and the comical.
It is in Zheng’s attuned sense of humor and choreography that Burned Wings truly finds its charm. The jokes are sometimes esoteric, sometimes serious, but always welcome. Complete with everything from small situational gags – the land developer and police talking business over a foot massage – to choreography that is closer to Looney Tunes or Charlie Chaplin than to a modern day action flick. The most memorable fight occurs in a bathhouse and includes a naked and overweight gangster falling through wading pools, slipping across a sauna floor and finally dashing through the bright LED-lined city streets. His attackers chase behind, stumbling and tripping against each other like Buster Keaton cops. Shirtless, one even has the deep purple marks from cupping dotted across his back. It’s a violent and slapstick breed of gangster humor.
Following the tradition of using genre to explore social, political and philosophical issues, Burned Wings is happy to exploit and sensationalize these norms. The seemingly lawless society it presents begs for punishment, as notions of justice are central to the plot. The film asks, “ Justice at what cost?” and answers, “any.“ The plot doesn’t exactly go anywhere but instead edges along a relatively predictable cycle of violence and corruption. Through beatings, bribery and ritual barbecues, Burned Wings delivers everything you want and expect from the genre.
Burned Wings – albeit with degree of almost painful simplicity – flips the notion of ‘bad’ guy and ‘good’ guy. Characters, including the unperceptive and impatient teacher, the corrupt police, the faithful prostitute and the heroic thug, all find screen time. Even the central protagonist, Ming, rises to power through reckless violence, while also serving as the group’s spiritual guide. His tale plays out like the de-romanticized origin story of a vigilante. That said, all of the film’s characters grow and learn, each one seeming to transform over barbecue. Ming’s idol shifts from imprisoned idealist into a silent and half-witted consumer of barbecue wings. With Ming’s help and threatening presence, the youngest character, Hao (Liu Chao), feasts on barbecue with his tormentors before switching from bullied to bully (and beginning his own cycle of maturing violence).
While many scenes suffer from a lack of technical polish – sound and editing glitches that disrupt some otherwise well-composed moments– and there aren’t any surprises for this sort of plot or genre, Burned Wings does look and feel like a considered, crafted and straightforward search into the lives of these contemporary Chinese youth. With cinematographer Sun Yang’s eye for color and use of depth, combined with Zheng Kuo’s willingness to have fun (complete with a cameo as a police officer), we’re given a graphic, gruesome and comic picture.
– Adriene Lilly