Absurd Accident is one of a number of just-released films making their American premiere at the 40th Asian American International Film Festival (AAIF) in New York City, from July 26 to August 5. China Film Insider has a useful round-up of highly anticipated films from Chinese directors.

Li Yuhe’s Absurd Accident is a well-executed exercise in what comic writers have known since Shakespeare: an audience loves knowing more than the characters. Li’s characters know so incredibly little, even while they believe they know so much. The film has at its heart essentially the same thesis as A Comedy of Errors: a bunch of either mostly well-meaning or adorably malevolent, completely moronic characters experience the worst possible consequences of their deductive shortcomings. Li weaves the plot in a kind of stuttered narrative, where everyone arrives at the moment following the right one, and they draw just exactly the wrong conclusions from available evidence. The result is an absurd and violent night in a small town, to be sure, but the success of Li debut doesn’t feel like an accident.

Yang Biwai and his wife are small-town motel owners clearly starved for some kind of excitement. Biwai is haunted by a recurring nightmare of his wife’s infidelity, as well as the reality of his own impotence; Ma Lilian, for her part, certainly relishes her husband’s frustration and pathetic attempts to compensate. She marks a trend that continues throughout the film: the women are both typically the objects of a violence inspired by threatened masculinities but nearly always more intelligent than the men who commit it. They surpass a dismally low bar, but it’s something.

Li’s plot devolves into increasingly comic chaos as his plan to have his wife murdered comes off the rails. There’s only one corpse in the film, but like a Coen brothers’ operation, no one can get rid of it, no matter how hard they try. The corpse plays into a larger capacity for physical comedy on the part of Li’s cast, which is on display as a deaf-mute gamer is interrogated – through a “translator” – by Yang Biwai, and as Li draws and re-draws the film’s tensest scenes.

There is something to be said for why it seems that comic violence is so often visited upon women who are cast as smarter and generally more capable than the gender-insecure men. There can be no doubt that the comedy springs from a failed attempt at masculinity; the only confidently masculine character in the film, the doctor selling traditional Chinese cures to tumors and erectile dysfunction, never embarrasses himself in attempted and ineffectual violence, though he does orchestrate the hit on Ma Lilian. I suppose only he has the confidence, and the connections with the “gangsters” who are never seen nor heard, because they probably don’t exist.

It might be that Li reproduces a particular gender politics, like this reading implies, but even this can be a little hard to justify. The doctor notwithstanding, both the women in the film eventually find themselves making all the wrong assumptions, too.

For example:

Nuli, literally “try hard,” is the film’s other frustrated man. He borrows a friend’s car for a date, but his date mistakes a message confirming the delivery of virtual currency for one million very real and thus inheritable yuan. He says his father owns a company and he’s about to enroll in an MBA program. You can begin to fill in the rest of the picture exactly as his date does, unfortunately. The result involves (why not?) a corpse and an increasingly bewildered policeman, who is about to retire the next day.

No one in Absurd Accidents is remotely capable, though they’ve clearly convinced themselves otherwise. The joy provided by these characters’ poor estimation of their own capabilities might say something important about similar misconceptions harbored about my own intelligence and/or helpless ignorance in the face of fate and air-tight screenplays. It’s a sentiment I’m guessing – what the hell do I know, anyway – Li has counted on.

Director: Li Yuhe
Release Date: May 17 2017 (US)
Run Time: 97 minutes

Where to watch: screening August 3 as part of AAIF 40 at the Asia Society in New York.

More information about the film can be found on its official website. The trailer is below.

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