Li Yuhe’s Absurd Accident vividly and ironically illustrates the idea that dramatic events can originate from the most seemingly trivial of problems. At the film’s start, the protagonist, a middle-aged man named Yang Baiwan (Chen Xixu), is desperately looking for a cure to his sexual impotence – and his failure has left him hypersensitive to everything related to sex. So when he hears rumors that his wife, a noodle maker named Ma Lilian (Gao Ye), is cheating on him, he automatically assumes they’re true, and he resolves to kill her in revenge.
The problem for Yang, however, is that he isn’t exactly cut out for killing: as Ma notes, even the thought of squishing ants on the ground makes him queasy. Because of this, Yang decides to outsource the job, asking a shady friend named Bi Jianxiao (Cao Rui) to hire someone who can take Ma out. After some discussion – and the transfer of a fair amount of cash on Yang’s part – Bi and Yang eventually settle on a plan. Yang will drug Ma, place her in her bedroom, and go somewhere else for the night in order to give himself an alibi. Afterward, Bi will enter the house and kill Ma in her sleep.
“…when he hears rumors that his wife…is cheating on him…he resolves to kill her in revenge.”
That night, Yang successfully carries out his part of the plan. But while waiting at a friend’s place, he suddenly comes to his senses – and realizes that he might just have been jumping to conclusions regarding his wife’s infidelity. Subsequently, in the desperate hope that he can still call off Ma’s murder, he frantically drives back to their house. When he arrives, however, Ma is nowhere to be seen, and Bi’s apparently dead body is lying outside on the ground – a bizarre set of circumstances that leave Yang with absolutely no idea as to what happened or what he should do next.
The first half-hour of Absurd Accident is enough by itself to make the entire film worth watching. In the tradition of Chinese writers like Lu Xun, Li offers a hilarious – but mercilessly scathing – depiction of modern-day China. Forget what you’ve heard about it being the “next superpower,” the China we see in Absurd Accident is a country that’s characterized by shameless venality, rampant materialism, and gaping inequalities between the city and countryside. In a delightfully satirical depiction of toxic masculinity, moreover, the men in Absurd Accident are portrayed as egotists who display an unhealthy obsession with sexual dominance.
Sadly, however, Absurd Accident becomes a lot less thoughtful after the scene where Yang discovers Bi’s body. As Yang frantically tries to figure out what to do with the corpse, the movie turns away from satire and becomes a standard suspense thriller. Everything about it, to be sure, is very well-made, and Li plays with narrative chronology in a way that fans of Quentin Tarantino will love. But ultimately, the latter two-thirds of the film lacks the bite and sociopolitical insight that make the first third such a compelling watch.
“…Li is undeniably a very skillful director, one who displays an impressive command of both narrative structure and film style.”
Beyond these general issues, there’s also a particular scene towards the end of the film that feels tonally off. I don’t want to go into spoilers, but in essence, what happens is that a man tries to rape a woman. Inexplicably, however, Li chooses to make light of this moment, treating the attempt as a comical accident instead of a gross act of misogyny. In a film that otherwise spares no effort to call men out on their narcissism and fixation with sex, this moment feels uncharacteristically, tastelessly nonchalant in its outlook.
Still, despite its various flaws, Absurd Accident hardly qualifies as a bad film. Say what you want about the film’s content, but Li is undeniably a very skillful director, one who displays an impressive command of both narrative structure and film style. And its lapses in tone and substance aside, the film generally proves quite entertaining, to the point that you’ll never feel remotely bored when watching it. As his directorial debut, this film is a clear sign that Li will be “one to watch” in the years to come.
Absurd Accident (2016) Directed by Li Yuhe. Written by Li Yuhe. Starring Chen Xixu, Gao Ye, Dong Bo, Ren Suxi, Lou Yunfei, Cao Rui, and Chen Chunsheng.
6 out of 10