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July 23, 2017

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Return Ticket (到阜陽六百里)

Directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Teng Yung-shin (鄧勇星), "Return Ticket" (到阜陽六百里) is the kind of film about Shanghai that rarely plays in a theater near you.

In a step away from "New Women" and "Shanghai Baby," the stars of this Shanghai movie are far from glamorous. They are the cleaning ladies who clear vomit from at KTV, or the kitchen maids who chop produce day in and day out.

For the city's migrant working class, it's hard to rise above their circumstances — what's more, a bad bus system makes it hard to go home. Ahead of one New Year rush, three provincial laborers devise a solution that may or may not work: a carpool of their own, an illegal direct coach back home to Fuyang, Anhui.

It's a story that gets quite dark, with a few aching betrayals and glum musings by immigrants who don't see a way out of their predicament. Yet "Return Ticket" never becomes woebegone.

That's partly thanks to Tang Qun (唐群), who makes her role of unappreciated mother Xie Qing (謝琴) too plucky to feel sorry for. Some comic relief comes from Jiuzi, played by Shen Yiquan (沈羿銓), a mute man whose disability forces him to perform charades to pass on his biggest hopes and dreams.

And then there is Cao Li (曹俐), central figure to the carpool scheme. Cao is played by Qin Hailu (秦海璐) of the Chinese Central Drama School, who gives a controlled performance that is exactly right.

In her part-time gig as carpool hustler, Cao has to find potential passengers on the street, and sometimes back them into deals they do not care to make. In the hands of a less skillful actor, Cao would be just another urban bully. But Qin is able to finesse her aggressive dialogue into a bold but not rude act of salesmanship, just as she can make her Cao imperial but not superior, wistful but never tragic.

It's Cao that audiences get to know in greatest detail, as it becomes clear that all the emigrants radiate out from her like a fractal, as they are all similarly etched by setbacks in the big city.

Yet even their ugly Shanghai is home to some startlingly pretty things. Low-lit sequences are broken up by images that are postcard perfect, like two women sharing a pot of noodles, or a marmalade cat on a roof; an interior of a bus that's filled with ordinary faces, bound for someplace other than where they started out.

These aren't soaring moments, but they somehow feel hugely important. Alongside strong performances, it's fleeting moments like these that help the lives of the plainest Shanghai people grow into a slim but intriguing drama about the pervasive pull of home, but also about how sometimes people leave, and why they have to go. ■

► Directed by Teng Yung-shing / With Qin Hailu, Tang Qun, Li Bin Bin and Shen Yiquan / Drama / Taiwan / 2011 / 85 min. / Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles / ★★★☆☆ / Now Showing

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