“THE FATAL CONTRACT”
Immortality and Art
Chinese director Tan Bing in “The Fatal Contract” based his ideas on a painter he once knew who was famous for depicting dead people almost exclusively. a notion Bing found quite fascinating. The most interesting aspect of the story was the decision to portray either life or death and the background which led to this point. “The Fatal Contract” also made the headlines during its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival 2018 because it is Bai Ling’s first feature set in China after she had been banned. Her home country’s film industry could perhaps no longer ignore her fame.
Tu La (Zhao Yanguozhang) owns and bartends at his small bar. Bei Wei (Bai Ling), former model and mistress to a painter, is a regular there and she loves the trademark cocktail, a drink that is called Lycoris Blossom. She also enjoys spending quite time with Tu La at the bar. Secretly, Tu La is also a painter who sneaks into the local crematorium to capture in paint those who are the recently deceased before they are burned to ashes. When art dealer and collector Lu Li (Tao Hong) becomes aware of these works, she is interested in Tu La creating a unique painting for her collection by he refuses her offer.
At the same time the deaths of many painters as well as their models have become a police investigation led by Officer Li (Xuan Miao). Since Bei Wei is the prime suspect in the latest murder, Lu Li aims to use this to her advantage, especially since Tu La has fallen in love with Bei Wei.
There is a lot to this film but it also suffers from many flaws, especially in the way it is structured. Bing also wrote the script that begins by bringing us both a drama and a thriller about the characters portrayed Ling and Yanguozhang. There is believable chemistry between the two as they take on the possibility of romance given after so many years of suffering and pain. The juxtaposition to the Li’s murder investigation or the calculating art collector serves as a fitting antithesis. We are constantly aware of the foreboding sense of love and romance that is doomed to fail, especially with characters so drawn to their darker side and death especially.
Bai Ling gives a committed performance as a character tormented by a mysterious past as well and having been exploited by the males in her life. Her predilection for drinking and fashion choices make her the opposite of the silent Tu La, whose talent for mixing these drinks is the only way he publicly shows his creativity. As the romance between the two begins to blossom, the film reaches its narrative peak, ”a physical act of devouring the other, of embracing the moment and the time with the other person.” Yet, we are aware of the fading undertone of this romance.
The supporting cast has some fine moments. However, it is a pity that both the police work and the way we see art here is not convincing. The design of their characters is often severely hurt by clichés and poor dialogue. Since “The Fatal Contract” is a thriller, it is sad to see just how soon everything seems to be said and done.
The film is really about the characters’ struggle for happiness and romance, and the constant confusion between art and reality. It has many good ideas – the relationship of art and life, of love and reality as well as romance and art – but fails to deliver a convincing narrative to support them. That does not mean you should not see it. Like we film, we all have flaws that we have to live with and for that, I recommend “The Fatal Contract”.