One and a Half

Reviewed by YTSL

A couple of weeks ago, I caught a viewing of “The Way Home” at a local art house theatre.  Although I wouldn’t go out of my way to actively dissuade other people from checking out the earnest South Korean drama that has been described as a love story between a 7 year old boy and his 70 years older grandmother, I have to admit to having spent a disproportionate amount of viewing time wishing that the elderly woman was far too unbelievably tolerant plus saintly and wishing that she would smack her almost as implausibly spoilt grandson around a bit.  So I’m not sure what possessed me to decide to pick another film -- albeit one that, this time, originated from Hong Kong (even while being set for the most part in Shanghai and some of its nearby environs) -- to watch soon afterwards that also centered on a young boy and an older individual.

In any event, I was very gratified to find that ONE AND A HALF is one of those cinematic offerings that is filled with people who are neither angels or devils, and consequently feel all the more genuinely human for being so.  To start with, even while this Lawrence Ah Mon helmed movie’s protagonist (a former railway signal man named Ma Bencheng who was adeptly portrayed by Zhang Fengyi) was an illegal immigrant who was found guilty of manslaughter and spent seven years in a Hong Kong prison before getting repatriated back to Mainland China, he gets shown to be -- among other things -- someone who did care deeply about what happened to his parents, wife and child.  Also, while the woman he loved (the often regretful looking Du Xia gets essayed by Carrie Ng) might be faulted by some for opting against standing by her man while he was a jail bird, it bears noting that she had the decency to give him some “face” by not filing for divorce until after the passing away of her mother-in-law.
Additionally, the individual who serves as the de facto villain of this 1995 production (Du Xia’s elder brother is played by Paul Chun Pui) could be said to have resorted to bullying ways when dealing with his former brother in law because he was over-protective -- towards his college graduate younger sister, whose choice of a less educated man for her first husband could be retrospectively argued to have set the wheels of fate into less than ideal motion -- rather than unjustifiably bad.  For all of the undoubted import of ONE AND A HALF’s adult characters proving to be the sort of people whose points of view one can see -- even if not completely sympathize with -- though, the deciding factor(s) re whether the movie would be one whose bitter-sweet story truly worked for me or not actually involved the “half” who was referenced in its title not being terribly precocious (as well as annoying, etc.) a character but also actor.
Fortunately, the part of Du Ziaoxheng -- the boy who had been raised as the pampered son of Paul Chun Pui’s character and gets kidnapped fairly early on into this effort by an angry Ma Bencheng -- is one that does appear to have been nicely written (along with the others) by Charcoal Tan and Liu Huan.  And it surely also helped that Xiao Junkun (who is credited in ONE AND A HALF using his Cantonese form of his name: i.e., Shui Chun Kwan) seemed like a major natural in what turned out to be quite a demanding role; this not least since the bulk of the film ended up being a “road movie” of sorts, albeit one that involves railroads and canals along with tarred paths, as Ma Bencheng took Du Ziaoxheng out of Shanghai to a series of locales that were foreign to the child (and not usually that which gets shown in a Hong Kong film or those Mainland Chinese productions that have received U.S. releases).
Although Ma Bencheng looked to have initially taken Du Ziaoxheng away from Shanghai and his family in retaliation for their having hurt him (including by telling him that his own son -- who he had been looking forward to seeing -- had died as well as been born while he was in prison), the rather understandably embittered character soon came across as really wanting more to just have someone to talk to and share his life stories plus insights with for a few days.  Consequently, far from mistreating his young captive turned companion, the down on his luck Ma Bencheng ended up giving him the kind plus amount of attention that he -- who the boy took to affectionately as well as playfully calling “Commander” -- not only would his own flesh and blood but that may not have been lavished on the lad by the older man he recognized as his father.  And since Du Ziaoxheng was not at all an ungrateful creature, an emotional bond got formed between the two fellow travelers that looked like it would help heal some of Ma Bencheng’s psychological wounds and more.
But how deep is that connection that came into being in the few days that Ma Bencheng and Du Ziaoxheng were together?  What is its precise plus true nature?  And how long would it last, really?  Another question that seems reasonable to ask is: Would it be able withstand any (further) tragedy, or at least the threat of it -- and more than once during the journey that ended up being taken by these two individuals whose relationship is at the heart of ONE AND A HALF?  Also, what of the revelations that appear to be an inevitable part and parcel of this type of never entirely tension-less dramatic tale?  Although some people might disagree, I feel that it actually reflects well on this work and its makers that not all of these queries get conclusively answered.  At the same time, I think it would be remiss of me to not take this opportunity to assure those who were put off by the description of the movie which appears on its Tai Seng VHS tape’s back cover that this worthy effort is not one that is even one quarter as heartbreaking as the readers of that supposed synopsis would have had good reason to think that it would be.

My rating for the film: 7.5