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The Dead End
The Dead End

Deng Chao and Duan Yihong meet The Dead End.
Chinese: 烈日灼心  
Year: 2015  
Director: Cao Baoping  
Producer: Cao Baoping, Ye Jinjun
Writer: Cao Baoping, Mia Jiao
Action: Bruce Law Lai-Yin  

Deng Chao, Duan Yihong, Guo Tao, Wang Luodan, Xu Xihan, Gao Hu, Jackie Lui Chung-Yin

The Skinny: Well-acted mystery-thriller that's engrossing and complex, despite possessing some narrative issues which may or may not be censorship-related. A fine addition to director Cao Baoping's excellent filmography.
by Kozo:

Cao Baoping’s mystery-drama The Dead End is an overstuffed yet complex and engrossing work that builds on the director’s impressive filmography (The Equation of Love and Death and Einstein and Einstein, among others). The story tells of three friends who once committed a terrible crime in rural China, raping one woman and leaving five dead before escaping. Seven years on they’ve apparently tried to go straight. Feng (Deng Chao) is an auxiliary policeman, Dao (Guo Tao) is a taxi driver and Bijue (Gao Hu) guards a fishing settlement, and they all take turns caring for Tail (Xu Xihan), an orphaned girl who calls each of them “Daddy” and suffers from a life-threatening disease. Their dark past resurfaces when Feng gets a new boss, Yi (Duan Yihong). A hardass cop who shows an incorruptible righteousness (at one point, he says “I am really into law. It is the best thing ever invented by man.”), Yi was an investigator on the trio’s previous crime, and the unsolved case still haunts him to this day.

Over time, Yi grows suspicious of Feng and his friends, but he also develops a respect for Feng, who appears to be a devout policeman. While Feng and his friends grow wary of the encroaching Yi, Tail’s disease worsens, ultimately requiring the friends to make some difficult decisions. Compounding the situation are Yi’s sister Xia (Wang Luodan), who develops a thing for Dao, and a gay Taiwanese yuppie (Jackie Lui), who forms a curious connection with Feng. The Dead End features many crisscrossing characters, and the story leans heavily on coincidence – to such a degree that the film has a hard time covering all its tracks convincingly. Characters run into each other far too conveniently, and while the coincidences are lampshaded (at one point, Xia openly comments on her serendipitous run-ins with Dao), they could have been better justified. With so many characters being haunted by their pasts, fate or karma could easily have been invoked as stronger supporting themes. As is, the level of convenience taxes suspension of disbelief.

The characters make up for the script's flaws. The three friends are bad guys who've irrefutably done bad things, so it's genuinely interesting to watch as they're given chances to do even more wrong and yet consistently don't. The mystery of The Dead End isn't if the men will be caught, but why they insist on being decent even when self-preservation suggests that they act otherwise. Both Deng Chan and Guo Tao are terrific, turning in performances that earn sympathy while still obscuring enough to keep matters in doubt. The film is largely about coming to understand the men, and the actors make the journey worthwhile. Unfortunately, given the numerous storylines and character connections, many of the revelations come as eleventh hour speeches – and some even come from third parties who are only speculating what happened to the men. Also, the script features some ridiculous eleventh-hour closure for Bijue, while underusing Xia. She comes off as little more than a plot device, though Wang Luodan's performance hints at greater depths.

Shoring up the cast is Duan Yihong, who shows integrity and complexity as the lead police inspector. Yi navigates the investigation with conflicted emotions, and while the outcome is pretty much assured (this is a China film, so you know what has to happen), Duan’s performance adds sharp tension to the proceedings. The Dead End is also notable for being a China film that depicts homosexual relationships, though the screenplay cleverly gets around some potential issues with SAPPRFT by making the only explicitly gay person Taiwanese rather than a Chinese national. The homosexual subtext is quite strong, however, and while the screenplay is circumspect about resolving its relationships, the characters feel richer as a result. The Dead End is successful on numerous levels; it's a well-acted and emotionally-complex drama with well-drawn characters, and a mystery thriller that manages some measure of the unexpected. That it's also a Chinese commercial film subject to SAPPRFT and their infamous content rules (whatever they may be) makes the result all the more impressive. (Kozo, 12/2016)

 Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen