Xu Tailang (Deng Chao) is a successful young race car driver who is estranged from his father Zhengtai (Eddie Peng). While arguing with his father in the car, Tailang accidentally crashes into a passing train. Instead of waking up in hospital, he wakes in 1998 to meet his father as a teenager – as well as search for his mother who died shortly after he was born.
Time travel is a comparatively rare element for Chinese cinema – it is often seen by the government as disrespectful to history – but it is employed to charming effect in Duckweed, a 2017 comedy-drama directed by popular Chinese race driver turned writer Han Han. It is a wonderful mixture of good dialogue, strong performances, and a nostalgic approach to late 1990s Hong Kong cinema (although this is a mainland production). While it is understandable for viewers to draw comparisons between Duckweed and Robert Zemeckis’ classic Back to the Future, the better comparison is likely Peter Chan and Lee Chi-ngai’s 1993 comedy He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father, which boasts a very similar storyline.
The film is deeply nostalgic, and looks back a generation with an emphatic fondness. The younger Zhengtai and his friends come across as a semi-incompetent tribute to the cast of 1990s franchise Young & Dangerous: they all talk the talk, but their low-level game exploits stagger aimlessly by comparison. The local police amusingly try to keep their criminal exploits in check, in a manner that makes everything feels like a small town parody of crime films of the period. The love for 1990s cinema runs right through Duckweed: Zhengtai runs a VHS rental store, and the gang spend half their time watching old Chow Yun-fat action movies in the local picture house. That said, there is also a strangely mean streak cutting through the film. The arrival of a higher-up gang rival (Li Ronghao)from Hong Kong results in unexpected bursts of threat and violence, and these run against the grain of the film’s otherwise amiable and light-hearted tone. It is an awkward mixture, but for regular viewers of popular Chinese-language cinema not an unfamiliar one.
Deng Chao is honestly too old to play Tailang, but he plays him with energy and charisma and manages to pull the character through. Eddie Peng does a solid job as both the old regretful Zhengtai and his more naively optimistic younger self. An unexpected asset to the film is Gao Huayang as the young Zhengtai’s slow-witted sidekick Liuyi, who contributes several comedic highlights. Zhao Liying adds a pleasant wrinkle to the film as Zhengtai’s fiancee Hua. It is a predictable story all told, but one that is well told. The production boasts an appealing aesthetic that showcases the canals and narrow streets of its southern Chinese setting, and a warm sense of lighting that gives most scenes a golden warm glow. There’s nothing new, and few surprises, but it charms its audience wonderfully. It is unlikely that you could claim Duckweed was a classic film, but it certainly works as comfort food for the eyes and heart.