Zhu Wen’s Thomas Mao really does keep you guessing. It’s a pleasure to see a movie in which you can’t imagine what will come next. At first, things seem to go by the numbers. To a remote Chinese farm comes the artist Thomas, to stay a short while and do some drawing…We seem to have the small-scale cross-cultural comedy, making amusing points about people’s petty differences. Then the ghosts arrive. At least, they might be ghosts. A phantom swordsman and swordswoman float around Mao’s farm and do battle, ultimately slashing off each other’s arms before disappearing, never to return. There are aliens too, invading Mao’s cabin with pop-concert glow sticks. They’re totally unexpected, like the warriors, and their visit is even more transitory.
Eventually Thomas leaves, and the film starts over. The second part offers a sort of crazy-mirror image of what we’ve seen so far. Artist becomes model, model becomes artist, dog becomes Doggy. If you like the double-track story of Syndromes and a Century, you’ll probably like Thomas Mao, which is less rigorous but more funny. (The very title is part of the joke.) Zhu, who has reveled in comic byplay in Seafood and South of the Clouds, gives us that rare thing, a movie that is whimsical without being precious. You learn about contemporary Chinese painting in the bargain.
Tony Rayns for BFI:
None of novelist Zhu Wen’s three films to date has been anything like either of the others, so the sheer originality of Thomas Mao should come as no surprise. Although it has its roots in an extraordinary real-life relationship (revealed in full in the closing scenes), most of the film is a kind of fantasia set in and around a small house built on the edge of a lake in the open countryside. A western man in a Red Army cap arrives to stay with the shepherd who lives there. He finds the guest-room was previously inhabited by ducks. They have no common language, and each gives the other much cause for complaint. The westerner starts making sketches of the Chinese man. When they sunbathe and doze off, they have very different daydreams: the shepherd imagines a martial-arts liebestod, the foreigner a pocket-sized alien invasion. Other motifs run through the action, but the dominant one is the east-west divide (already signaled in the punning Chinese title): it’s a film about different attitudes to life, different financial and moral values. It’s also a sizzling piece of conceptual art, as modern as tomorrow and as old as a good Pu’er tea.
Derek Elley for Film Biz Asia:
Thomas Mao is the artiest but also the most accessible of the three films Zhu Wen has made to date: it’s much better constructed than the over-discursive Seafood (2001) and much more original in its ideas than South of the CloudsSeventeen Years (1999) and In Expectation (1995), which he contributed to, were directed by other hands–but with Thomas Mao he has at least learnt the value of brevity when attached to a good concept… The Chinese title, which literally means Small Things, also contains an internal pun on “east” (dong) and “west” (xi), whose characters make up the Chinese word for “things”. The pun is mirrored in the English title which conflates the two characters’ names into one.
Maggie Lee for The Hollywood Reporter:
Filled with as many laugh-out-loud farcical gags as high brow visual aesthetics, “Thomas Mao” is a refreshing aperitif for the artsy crowd yet relatively accessible to an open-minded western audience. Within China’s current filmmaking trends, it juts out like a lone palm tree in a desert oasis.
The first part takes place on the Mongolian grassland during the summer of the 2008 Olympics. An American painter (Thomas Rohdewald) takes up lodgings for three days at a ramshackle lakeside inn run by a hot-headed, trigger-happy innkeeper (Mao Yan)…The situation of a grumpy, demanding foreigner talking at cross purposes with a country bumpkin who rants in an obscure Hunan dialect gives fodder for “lost in translation” jokes. To this, Zhu adds slapstick humor arising from a different type of ‘racial tension’: the innkeeper is murderously intent on guarding his prized purebred German Alsatian from the sexual advances of a local mongrel, while the American keeps helping the mutt sow his wild oats behind his back.
Bérénice Reynaud for Senses of Cinema:
I have noticed, in recent contemporary Chinese films, the discrete reoccurrence of a certain narrative form, the two-part structure: the story seems to be unfolding in one direction, and then a rupture occurs, followed by a change of tone, locale, even diegesis; the second part, much shorter, is a sort of coda, an inverted mirror, playful or sinister, a reshuffling en abyme of what we have seen so far, casting a doubt on its meaning or reality. Zhu seems to be fond of such a narrative form (see the bawdy structural shift in Seafood), and rarely has it been as brilliantly implemented as in Thomas Mao, in which the double structure functions as a metaphor for a series of fault lines that traverse the diegesis. The first reproduces the well-documented dichotomy city/countryside, or big city/small town. A chronicler of urban discontent, Zhu is, however, not immune to the lure of the Chinese landscape –aware that something akin to the soul of the culture is encapsulated there, something that the representation of nature in classical scroll paintings was attempting to capture. He is also aware of the role played by the spectacle of the Chinese landscape in the reification and commodification of China for the Western gaze –as demonstrated by his acerbic view of 5th Generation directors, who cashed in on such exoticism. Yet Zhu does not partake of the “gritty realism” that became the staple of some 6th Generation directors –as it is another way of playing up to the Western gaze. For the second fault line on which Thomas Mao is simply the Great Divide between East and West, with its miscommunications, bodies moving out of sync with each other, mutual deception as well as mutual fascination.