Back to the Wharf: A Beautiful and Heartbreaking Neo-Noir

Back to the Wharf tells the story of Song Hao (Zhang Yu), who returns to his hometown for his mother’s funeral, fifteen years after leaving under less-than-ideal circumstances. Co-writer/director Li Xiaofeng weaves classic noir tropes with a unique and touching romance to deliver something equally visually striking and emotionally devastating.

When Song Hao was a teenager, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and was forced to flee his hometown and create a new life for himself in a big city. The film spends significant time on this backstory, introducing the audience to Hao’s parents and friends and the small but developing town they inhabit.

Without the knowledge that the film’s premise is about Hao’s return, the audience might believe that the entirety of the film plays out with our protagonist as a teen. It makes the immediacy of Hao’s crime and his desperate escape all the more thrilling and tragic.

That’s not to say that the film takes a swing into the inspirational after the fifteen-year flash-forward that shows Hao called back to the place he ran away from in his youth. Back to the Wharf is not a light or uplifting film, but it is effective, beautiful, and thought-provoking.

A Visually Stunning Portrait of a Place

From the film’s opening showing the brutalist apartment building where Song Hao lives with his mother and father, Back to the Wharf is a portrait of Hao’s coastal hometown. But it’s not just a travelog that marks the changes to the town in the fifteen years between 1992 and 2007, for which Hao is absent. It’s also a gorgeous film that makes even the ugliest aspects of the town look beautiful.

The film is exceptionally crisp, allowing every divet in concrete and raindrop to appear clearly, creating a sense of hyperreality that’s both alluring and somewhat threatening. From the gray-skyed scenes of teenage Hao biking through even grayer concrete architecture to neon-lit club scenes, every image is striking and draws us further into Hao’s world.

Xiaofeng and cinematographer Piao Songri also make the most of their setting. We see the coastal town in times of crashing waves and images of the still ocean waters reflecting fireworks. There’s also an emotionally resonant contrast between the warmly lit scenes in Hao’s apartment and the starker lighting outside. Whether it be the colorful images of a face doused in red and blue police lights or the harsh contrast of a car’s white headlights into the blackness of the night, the outside world is always ominous.

An Emotionally Powerful Genre Mix

That formal choice is also borne out in the narrative as Hao’s life is thrown off track as a teenager and again when he returns. Back to the Wharf is a noir film through and through. Its central plotline, which concerns the intersection of criminality and local politics, is quintessential noir. But its middle section offers a strangely endearing love story between Hao and his old classmate Pan Xiaoshuang (Song Jia).

It’s never clear whether these two are drawn together because of any particular attraction to one another or simply to escape their loneliness. It’s a romance that’s more bittersweet than passionate but is affecting within that register.

The criminal storyline is also familial, as Hao’s father, Song Jianhui (Wang Yanhui), is involved in the business dealings that force Hao back into crime. It’s a classic tale, one that’s generally more associated with westerns than noirs, of a land developer in a standoff with a holdout unwilling to leave. To make things more complicated, that holdout is a victim of the crime that led Hao to flee fifteen years earlier.

But even this genre-inflected storyline is more heartbreaking than thrilling. There are moments here that are shocking and devastating, but none that can be described as exciting. The few scenes of violence in the film are chaotic and focused on the harm done rather than any sense of victory. All of that makes sense for a movie that’s not only thematically interested in the lasting effects of violence but also based on a true story.

Back to the Wharf is a powerful film that uses its genre trappings to draw viewers into a story of all too real suffering. The fact that the film shows suffering brought about by chance, greed, and self-doubt only makes it a more compelling and complete picture of humanity in crisis.

 7.5/10 SPECS

Back to the Wharf will be available on VOD platforms beginning January 17.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Kyle Logan studied philosophy and now constantly overthinks music and movies.

He’s a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Cultured Vultures, Chicago Film Scene, Castle of Chills, and Filmotomy. Kyle has covered virtual film festivals including the inaugural Nightstream festival in 2020 and the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. Kyle is interested in horror films, animation, Star Wars, and Adventure Time, as well as older genre films written and directed by queer people and women, particularly those from the 1970s and 80s. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.