“Free and Easy”
A Traditional Crime Satire
When a traveling soap salesman arrives in a desolate Chinese town, a crime occurs and sets the strange residents against each other with tragicomic results. “Free and Easy” is a farcical look at traditional crime narrative. Geng Jun’s direction creates bizarre tension throughout the film that combines absurd and nonsensical skits with stunning visual interpretation of an abandoned landscape.
Set in a desolate factory town of northeast China we meet a “Christian” evangelical, a monk trying to spread the gospel, a crooked traveling salesman, a man in charge of reforestation, an adept student of kung-fu with a gentle mind, two cops with doubtful coherence and other loony characters.
Geng Jun’s comedy gives us a gallery of sympathetic, if not colorful and peculiar characters. We have crooks that are incompetent, cops who are inept, masters and bureaucrats who are amateurs. These characters come and go off screen to appear again later in constantly shifting ridiculous alliances. Behind the simplicity of the premises hide subtle ways of forging improbable and silly links between them. They are bored, loony and misplaced. The events in the film are delivered quietly even though it is a comedy. The location itself is a character— a village in a state of decay in the middle of a wasteland where the silence is heavy and the colors are grey and brown.
“Free and Easy” is a gentle piece of dark humor in which patience is a virtue. Zhang Zhiyong is a soap salesman with a predatory con. He comes into town and introduces himself to a bystander, offering him a free sample of a bar of scented soap. When the mark sniffs it, he falls unconscious, allowing Zhang to lift his wallet and valuables. At least that is how it is supposed to work. Christian convert Gu Benben is so congested he does not fall over like the others. Actually, the Christian evangelism is just an excuse to hand out flyers for his decades-missing mother. Xu Gang, the phony dispossessed monk does not inhale either, but when the fumes from the freebie finally fell him, Zhang finds he has nothing worth stealing.
Soon news of Zhang and his knockout soap reach the local constable, but instead of hunting the con man, corrupt copper Zhang Xun tries to use the soap on Zhang’s new pretty landlady, Chen Jing, but she wants absolutely nothing to do with him. Her husband Xue Baohe understandably resents Zhang Xun’s pursuit of his wife but he has other problems distracting him. Someone has been harvesting the trees he has been planting along the highway as part of a rare re-forestation campaign thereby putting his own position in considerable jeopardy.
Granted, Zhang Zhiyong and Xu Gang might not be perfect, but there is no question Zhang Xun is the scummiest villain in the film which and this is in keeping with popular attitudes towards the People’s Police.
Regardless, the ensemble is excellent all around, especially Zhang Zhiyong. Xue Baohe probably pulls off the most surprises as the formerly cringe-inducing forester Xue. Xu Gang gives the film further complicating human dimensions as Xu Gang the impostor monk, who seems to feel a need to live up to the role he has fraudulently assumed.
“Free and Easy” is a dry comedy that casts a cynical, eye on contemporary Chinese society. The cops are the worst, but there is no shortage of grifters looking to pull a fast one.