Free and Easy is low-key, black comedy that takes place in an unnamed Chinese town in winter. Many of the town’s buildings have fallen down, while others are in an advanced state of disrepair.
There’s some symmetry in Free and Easy: two con men, two policemen, two guys pasting posters on walls. Eventually we see a con woman, too, and a third person pasting posters.
One con man asks people to smell the soap he’s selling. Something in it quickly renders them unconscious. He takes their money, phones and watches while they’re knocked out. Pretty easy as far as it goes, but the pickings can’t be great in such a rundown place. There aren’t many people out and about, either, though it’s not clear if they’re sticking close to home or if the town is more or less abandoned. If there were more people around, surely they’d warn each other about this guy.
The other con man is an alleged monk who offers “free” amulets, but then requests a “donation,” to rebuild his burnt-out temple. If they don’t want an amulet, people can touch him “for luck.” Of course, he wants money for that, too.
When the monk and the soap man walk along some railroad tracks, there are ugly grey hills in the distance, the kind of scenery we see in films by Jia Zhang-ke. Is this place a former mining town?
The policemen don’t seem to have much to do; they smoke and eat in the station house, even sharing their medications in a weird, comradely way. One of them has plenty of time to make unwelcome visits to a woman who runs a boarding house. Coincidentally, the soap man rents a room from her, and her husband, who’s in charge of a reforestation project, is the man looking for the missing tree. This tree man is a very quiet sort. Slow moving, too. He might be bored out of his. . .tree, exhausted, or suffering from narcolepsy, who knows?
As for the poster-pasters, one is looking for his mother, who has been missing for years, while the other is looking for a very large tree, which vanished more recently.
The jokes in Free and Easy are subtle; there aren’t any martial-arts battles, or car chases (hardly any cars at all, actually). There is a troublesome dead body that has to be dealt with, though. Free and Easy won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at the Sundance Film Festival. Music in the film is from Chinese band Second Hand Rose. Second Hand Rose has a web site, and a Facebook page. The New Yorker wrote a profile on the group back in 2014.
Free and Easy
China (2016) 99 minutes long, in Mandarin with English (subtitles)
Directed by: Geng Jun
Written by: Liu Bing, Geng Jun, Feng Yuhua
Cast: Xue Baohe, Gu Benbin, Xu Gang, Yuan Liguo, Zhang Xun, Wang Xuxu, Zhang Zhiyong
Free and Easy will be shown on Thursday, July 20, 2017, at 5:30 p.m. in Salle J.A. De Sève of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival.
Visit the Fantasia web site for more information.