Xue Ming (Eddie Peng) is in jail when we meet him. He’s talking about the boredom of living the same day repeatedly while thinking about how he got there. Deciding it’s better to show than tell, first-time director Shipei Wen sends us back to 1997 to find Xue on the telephone with an angry girlfriend just about fed up with waiting. It’s difficult to tell whether he’s on his way to the cinema late or simply going home when he finally leaves, but the path to his destination is fatefully blocked by a cow. He subsequently turns his air-conditioning repair van down a side street before his beeper takes his attention away from the road and a loud thud smashes his nose against the steering wheel.
It’s a moment we’ll see many more times as Are You Lonesome Tonight? reveals Xue’s choice to leave behind the man he hit. This incident haunts his nightmares to the point where he even imagines himself walking over to the body and shooting it with a gun before continuing on his way. Or maybe he’s not imagining anything at all—he simply got back in the van and drove off the first time we watched the accident unfold, then dragged the body to a ditch the second time. Wen and his co-writers (Noé Dodson, Yinuo Wang, and Binghao Zhao) play with our assumptions and understanding of the facts through shattered memories and emotional manipulations of the truth.
And there’s really no way of knowing what’s real and what’s not. Sometimes they return to a moment we’ve seen before and supplement with new vantage points or extended time previously ignored. Sometimes they change what occurred in ways that, with new context, render the previous iteration impossible or plausibly altered. Include the nightmares and we suddenly have about five versions of the same car crash that hold vastly different meanings. It’s a rather introspectively dramatic depiction of Xue’s psychological reckoning after coincidentally stumbling upon his victim’s wife a few days later (Sylvia Chang’s Liang Ma). Even that’s out of order, though—we see him fix her air unit before watching him follow her home to ensure she hires him to do so.
Despite a methodical pacing that will try your patience, experiencing Xue’s conscience get the better of him by placing him in precarious situations, as a result of what he did, is riveting. It helps that both Peng and Chang deliver authentic portrayals of characters who aren’t merely following expectations. Xue does feel guilt for his actions, but there’s also a fascination with the idea that maybe Ma is better off without her husband. And while Ma is desperate to find her partner, she’s not necessarily broken up about it. Is that because she’s glad he’s gone? Or does she harbor her own guilt for what occurred prior to him leaving the house? Putting these two together has just as much potential to supply answers as it does destroy them.
The latter possibility is only augmented by the fact there’s a lot more to this story than originally thought. Either Wen and company believed our interest in their leads wasn’t going to be enough to sustain us or they felt their writing style was better suited for genre excess than quiet meditation. Because while Xue does get close to Ma for the sole purpose of admitting what he did, that proximity also inherently reveals a ton of new details: a hidden locker, stolen money, a four-chamber revolver (the scene with this one is so intentionally comedic that it could be part of a completely different film), and a police captain (Yanhui Wang) who tries to be a crucial cog despite never earning real value beyond background support.
I couldn’t believe one of the plot synopses I read afterwards attempted to pretend Wang’s role was as important as Peng and Chang. I could be mistaken, but I didn’t even realize he was a character until more than halfway through the runtime. His arrival coincides with the rabbit hole of gangster violence that swallows Xue, sidelines Liang, and replaces the resonant drama with shallow action once a villain enters the picture for Wang’s cop to chase. He follows him as Xue gets caught in the crosshairs with a desire for revenge. If you think this added excitement is going to ratchet up the tension and inject some energy into the proceedings, however, you’d be mistaken. The pacing never picks up speed; it continues like a dream.
And if there’s one part of Are You Lonesome Tonight? that excels higher than the cast’s performances, it’s the production value and mood. I often felt as if I were floating through a nightmare fantasy world with shifts in the action that seemingly come out of nowhere until I was wondering if the whole was predicated on Xue being an unreliable narrator. I eventually couldn’t figure out what he really did the night he hit Liang’s husband and, at a certain point, it didn’t matter; the film started being about something else entirely. Guilt turns into rage as Xue decides the best way to make up for what he did is to get the people who intentionally tried to hurt the man he unintentionally hurt.
Who cares that he’s a slacker mechanic without any fighting experience? The incongruity of Xue’s journey becomes the intrigue that keeps us going because we’re too off-balance to try hypothesizing where things might lead. We therefore resign ourselves to go for the ride even if we’re unsure whether Wen is a trustworthy guide through the chaotic narrative divergences he’s created. We accept his assured direction as evidence that he knows what he’s doing, but any success had is probably due more to his abundance of confidence than logic. Because while the result proves less satisfyingly solid than it acceptably plausible, I remained invested throughout. If the script may not earn many of its disorienting focal shifts, it finds the finish line just the same.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? is screened at the Cannes Film Festival.