Lauded for breaking long-held Chinese taboos, The Dead End seems to have attracted audiences primarily for its supposed modernity. Those of a delicate nature should note that the first five minutes offers female nudity, graphic sexual assault, mangled bodies, profuse profanity and a tree-skewered perpetrator (don’t worry-he lives). Although the remaining film is standard American PG-13 material, the blatant homosexuality and nebulous morality laced throughout were surprising, considering China’s well-known strict censorship practices.
That violent introduction sets the premise for the film: three men flee into the surrounding woods from a remote home, leaving five victims behind- one woman raped before death and her slaughtered family strewn about. The rest of the film documents their attempt to create a new life of nobler intentions and one captain’s continued investigations, seven years after the tragedy.
The top performance belongs to Deng Chao. Portraying wary auxiliary policeman Xiaofeng, he deftly engages in a deadly dance of cat and mouse with Captain Yi, passing even the most private of boundaries. He is cunning in his attempted escape, but ultimately wants to be caught for the sake of his adopted daughter.
Now let’s talk soundtrack. There was precisely one exceptional scene-the revelation. The score did what it should-tension built as cut scenes rapidly spliced in (in case you missed blatant clues throughout the film) and cinematic climax was achieved. Composer Bai Shui did well here. The rest of the film left something to be desired. Instead of an adrenaline pumping pace as police gave chase and Feng faced his moment of truth, I was left with a comedy routine. The audience guffawed, the idiot who brought an axe to a high-wire gun fight plunged to his death, and ‘the truth’ fell flat. Such wasted potential.
Although intended as a thinly veiled critique of China’s recent death penalty blunders, director Cao Baoping failed to provide an innocent man. As Captain Yi explains, the law “doesn’t care how good you can be” but “only defines how evil you’re allowed to be”. Intriguing thought-are good men killed because of a faulty law that fails to account for their purity? Were the perpetrators actually innocent, I might have believed in his cause. I might have shed a tear or two. However, I find it difficult to muster righteous indignation over executing men who were involved in a brutal rape, the trauma of which resulted in death. Not to mention covering up the subsequent familial slaughter. As it sits, Baoping’s intended idealism packs a pretty weak political punch.
Overall, The Dead End earns a generous B-. Despite engaging cast performances, the “clues” were little more than neon signs, the obligatory romance far-fetched at best, and the plot lacked much needed continuity and credibility.