by MEI LING CHEN
The Continent is a Chinese road trip comedy about three friends as they escort one of them to his new job on the other side of the country. They leave their tiny east coast island and set out to explore the rest of China. New director, Han Han, sets out to explore the aimlessness of modern Chinese youth in this film.
The film starts off with the narrator, Hu Sheng, who explains the reason for this trip. He introduces his friends: Ma Haohan (Feng Shaofeng), the attractive leading man who’s seeking out his childhood pen pal; and Jiang He (Chen Bolin), a sensitive geography teacher who’s been relocated to the west coast of China. Hu Sheng is depicted as the foolish sidekick of the group – he says inappropriate things and is often slow on the uptake. As quickly as he is introduced, however, he is soon left behind and we never hear from him again. It’s puzzling why the director chose to frame the story around him as the other two main characters go on without Hu Sheng and there is no further mention of him.
Along the way, the guys meet several characters similarly adrift in their own lives: A childhood friend leaves for the big city in pursuit of acting only to take minor work as an extra; a carefree hitchhiker with a tragic backstory; and the pen pal Ma had been looking forward to meeting, provides a startling revelation about his childhood. And with all this, we never really see the characters work through these revelations or obtain the closure that they, and the audience needs, to move on. Plot points are picked up as quickly as they’re dropped. Perhaps this lack of purpose and sense of confusion was what the director was going for, but if the characters can’t find it in themselves to care about these things then why should we?
However, The Continent is still a good-looking film. The scenic landscapes and the wide road shots make you forget that you’re in China (which is often projected onscreen as bustling and overcrowded) and provides a sense of freedom that Ma and Jiang must be feeling when they’re on the road. The remoteness of the settings allows you to feel the isolation of the characters.
Han’s debut film hits the right comedic beats with plenty of laughs to go around, but his attempts at anything deeper seem akin to throwing several elements in the air and hoping something sticks. He has a knack for dialogue but seemingly not much else. The friends do not seem changed for having done the road trip and the relationship is not stronger for it. The film ends abruptly and we’re left wondering what the point of it was. Do the friends ever find each other in the end? Were they really friends to begin with? And what happened to Hu Sheng and how did he get home? The Continent succeeds when it tries to be a comedy but fails when it tries to be anything more than that.