In the neo-noir Are You Lonesome Tonight?, an air-conditioning repairman runs over someone in the middle of the night. Out of guilt, he starts an unusual relationship with the deceased’s widow. But the late husband may not be as innocent as he first appeared.
Re Dai Wang Shi (Are You Lonesome Tonight?)
Wen Shipei (director and writer), Zhao Binghao (writer), Wang Yinuo (writer), Noé Dodson (writer), Andreas Thalhammer (cinematographer), Xiaosu Han (cinematographer), Cedric Cheung-Lau (cinematographer), Zhang Heng (cinematographer), Zhu Lin (editor), Will Wei (editor), Dong Jie (editor), Noé Dodson (editor), Cao Hangchen (editor)
Eddie Peng, Sylvia Chang, Wang Yanhui, Zhang Yu, Jiang Peiyao, Lu Xin, Chen Yongzhong, Deng Fei (cast)
September 12, 2021 (TIFF)
What seems like a drama about the guilt caused by a hit-and-run devolves into something akin to a gangster film in Are You Lonesome Tonight? And I loved every bit of it.
One night while driving, Wang Xueming (Eddie Peng) takes a detour when his way is blocked by a buffalo, only to end up running over Mr. Liang. Wracked by guilt, he’s ready to confess to the crime but accidentally bumps into Mrs. Liang (Sylvia Chang). Curious at her seeming dispassion at the loss of her husband, Wang strikes up a sort of friendship with Mrs. Liang, helping her when he can. But this ultimately leads to Wang becoming embroiled in Mr. Liang’s affairs, none of which paint a great picture of the deceased.
If the premise of Are You Lonesome Tonight? sounds exciting, let me tell you that it doesn’t even come close to describing the extraordinary plot. What starts off as a quiet rumination on the vagaries of life quickly becomes a fight for survival for Wang and the unsuspecting Mrs. Liang.
Throw into the mix is the detective and his squad who are tasked with finding Mr. Liang’s killer. Unlike in most noir films where you would expect law enforcement to have a bigger role, Are You Lonesome Tonight? puts the focus solely on the perpetrator and the victim’s family. The police are an afterthought. In the current global conditions that we’re living in, this was a good move on the part of the screenwriters.
Introducing twists can be tricky—it’s 2021, and we’ve had a lot of time over the past 18 months to catch up on films. What this story does well is that it actually gives the twists away at first, but they’re set up in a way that the viewer doesn’t believe it. So, when the twist is revealed to be true, you’re left in shock. I can be jaded at times, but I did not expect Are You Lonesome Tonight? to go in the directions it did, which was a delightful surprise for me.
The visual style of this film is beautiful and unusual. It feels very reminiscent of films set in the ’90s, which makes sense considering the story is set in 1997. But mirroring an older aesthetic isn’t a prerequisite for films set in the past, so I was surprised by the choice. You can almost believe it was actually made in the ’90s, done in the same vein as Wong Kar-wai’s film Chungking Express. Are You Lonesome Tonight? has a similar visual quality but with a lot more blood.
Another reason why I loved the aesthetics of this film was because it made me feel like I was time-traveling. Whether that was debutant director Wen Shipei’s intention or not, I’m not sure, but it added yet another layer to the storytelling.
I also loved the way Shipei and his cinematography team used a variety of techniques to tell the story of Are You Lonesome Tonight?. There are instances where they use spotlights that give the film an almost documentary or found footage-like feel. It added so much tension to the story that I found myself holding my breath.
The performances are excellent because they are incredibly subdued. There’s loss and grief and fear, emotions that in real-life simmer under the surface. They’re difficult to emote on screen and we’ve seen some truly terrible renditions. But in Are You Lonesome Tonight?, both Peng and Chang hold their emotions at bay, and they successfully manage to portray their characters as real human beings as a result.
Chang carries some of the emotional heft of the film, seeing as she is the grieving widow. But what she gets absolutely right is the glassy-eyed stillness of a woman being forced to grieve in front of other people. It’s only when Mrs Liang is alone that she can truly allow herself to feel emotions. I loved that bit of storytelling and acting.
Peng gets more screen time to take Wang through the gamut of emotions in Are You Lonesome Tonight? and he does a stunning job. Never over-the-top, always restrained, Peng aptly portrays a man coming apart at the seams. It’s absolutely remarkable watching him in this film.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? was a thrilling film to watch. There were so many unexpected twists and turns that I could never guess what would happen next. The performances are so understated and realistic that it draws you into the story. I thoroughly enjoyed this film.