Directed by Xiaofeng Li and written by Xin Yu, a man wanted for negligent homicide returns to his hometown after 15 years, only to be haunted by his past, and getting mixed up in a scheme involving the daughter of his victim. Starring: Yu Zhang, Jia Song, Yanhui Wang, Jin Chen, Enxi Deng, Yuhang Gao, Hong-Chi Lee and Zhengjie Zhou.
Years of regret, secrets and hiding away from everyone that you know, especially when it involves a death, is always going to be a good set-up for a story. It comes pre-loaded with a complicated set of emotions, plenty of brooding, loneliness and oodles of mistrust. Back to the Wharf also actually hands you the pivotal moment in the opening of the film, something which is often instead left to the imagination but it’s a great scene. However, it’s also probably the film’s strongest moment for the writing, once it skips to an older version of the lead, the progression gets steadily messier. There’s an element of chaos to it but not one that feels intentional, it has these key moments of manipulation which are well done but otherwise creates a strange focus on this out of the blue romance. It takes over the story and slowly strays away from the key themes.
Wherein lies its biggest issue, that it feels entirely inconsistent both in tone and pacing. Especially when it comes to building its lead character, opening initially with Zhengjie Zhou, he has a great presence and offers a lot of potential. He does a wonderful job of capturing the conflict both in the accident and in his messy home life. However, his appearance is short lived as we move on to the character’s older self played by Yu Zhang and very little time is spent expanding his personality and without it, he’s simply a quiet, stoic man. However, the introduction of the unpredictable love interest, played by Jia Song is a massive influx of personality, but sadly it again can’t quite get the tone settled. As the story moves forward, she also calms down and the focus of the story shifts back to its original intention. Unfortunately, it’s too late to do much with it, so when it dives in headfirst it’s going completely off the rails and falls into melodrama. However, Hong-Chi Lee is a great addition who brings a lot of energy, he’s satisfyingly arrogant and entitled, he feels like a classic character of crime cinema.
On the other hand, Xiaofeng Li’s directorial style is surprisingly dependable throughout, with the exception of a few strange shot choices. The cinematography captures that typically dark, mysterious and threatening palette of crime and thrillers. There’s an underlying energy of heavy regret and sadness, an inescapable weight placed upon the characters. Although it does occasionally try to evoke a deeper emotion than it has a handle on. There’s also some truly terrible choices to its score, somehow including a 1980s action ballad style then later an ultra-jazzy noir type tease for emotion. They appear sporadically and with an overwhelming feel, the film would have been better left with a little bit of subtlety.
Back to the Wharf ultimately feels like it couldn’t decide what it wanted to build and ended up with a rather messy blend. The story is extremely inconsistent, shifting its focus and unable to build a clear, even if mysterious, path to provide the foundation for its raucous ending. The cast all give solid performances, it’s only a shame we didn’t get to see more from Zhengjie Zhou and that time wasn’t given to unfold the personality of Yu Zhang’s older iteration, to give him a bigger, compelling presence. There’s some good elements to it but none of them are given the support to reach their full potential and create something genuinely thrilling or gripping.