9/18/2013 by Clarence Tsui
The Bottom Line
The political message gets lost in translation in this thriller, thanks to simplistic handling of cross-cultural business dealings and amorous relationships.
Luca Barbareschi might have taken himself out of politics, but his first directorial effort in over a decade shows him steadfastly unwilling to have the politics taken out of him. A thriller revolving around a Hong Kong-set conspiracy among Chinese businessmen to export contaminated milk powder to sub-Saharan countries — in what is dubbed as the “White Africa Operation” — Something Good is brimming with good intentions (as displayed by the expositional text about real-life tainted-food scandals bookending the film) and bubbling with genuine fury.
But passion alone a credible and gripping movie does not make, as the film’s simplistic depiction of its central political premise and its cultural setting reveals a globalization-gone-wrong treatise that subscribes to some of the old-school perspectives about the non-Western “Other” out there perpetuating harm on everyone. While the director’s mainstream audiences at home (who knew of him as the director of the 2002 film The Chameleon, about a moral corruption of a small-town activist scaling the political ladder in Rome) and in other European markets might warm to what they simply see as a well-made thriller, Something Good will probably see its presence in Asian markets restricted to bookings at Italian-themed showcases. (The film made its world premiere on Wednesday as the curtain-raiser of the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Cine Italiano! program.)
Running on the generic trope of a gangster rediscovering his conscience through love, Something Good centers around Matteo (played by Barbareschi himself), a middle-aged Italian dealer making a fortune from the trading of undocumented and unchecked foodstuffs. After a botched deal on home turf, he flees to Hong Kong with a view of capitalizing on what he sees as the Chinese century — by trying to coax the country’s businessmen to take up the European colonialist’s mantle with their raid on Africa through sales of adulterated milk powder to the impoverished nations on the continent.
Matteo, of course, soon finds himself drawn into a murderous, double-dealing universe which he has had no control over, just as his hard-edged veneer is dismantled when he falls for a local restaurateur Xiwen (mainland Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu) — a romance that throws his profiteering drive into doubt (his new love’s young son died of food poisoning) and also provides a way in from his pursuers from the law and the mob.
It’s perhaps ironic that Something Good is an adaptation of an Italian novel titled I Trust You — a reference to the confidence Matteo and Xiwen show towards each other as their fates become intertwined. So, the on-screen lovers believe each other, but the viewer’s faith in the story is repeatedly challenged as the proceedings get bogged down by Matteo’s underdeveloped relationships — with Xiwen, his expatriate associates (such as Gary Lewis’ heavily-accented Scot) and his sleazy local business partners (played by, among others, Hong Kong veterans Kenneth Tsang and Eddy Ko).
While Arnaldo Catinari’s camerawork manages to play up the Asian metropolis’ unique urban fabric without resorting to the visual exoticization of yore — the film’s location scouting is again the handiwork of October Pictures, the company who also assisted the Hong Kong shoot of The Dark Knight and Contagion, among others — Something Good is still mired in a dated cultural discourse, as many a riveting film — such as, say, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra — has set a new high standard for situating nuanced human drama amidst complex economic and demographic flows in the world today.
The shortfall is perhaps best embodied by how all the Chinese cast have their voices overdubbed here, even if most of them speak fluent English. Something Good is ultimately a story about an Italian man stranded in a strange land, but Barbareschi’s film could certainly have armed itself with a more sophisticated sheen if it wants to mount a more complex political argument about the moral frailties within the politically-charged business ethos of the modern-day foodstuff production conglomerates. As it stands now, Something Good is limited to be a story about a bad guy lost in a bad food nation, whose chance of redemption lies in his love for someone who cooks well – a skeletal framework which, perhaps, works better as a Mostly Martha-style romantic drama.
Venue: Cine Italiano! Film Festival, Hong Kong
Production Companies: Casanova Multimedia, Rai Cinema
Director: Luca Barbareschi
Cast: Luca Barbareschi, Zhang Jingchu, Kenneth Tsang, Eddy Ko, Michael Wong
Producer: Luca Barbareschi
Executive Producers: Claudio Gaeta, Giulio Cestari
Screenwriters: Francesco Arlanch, Luca Barbareschi and Anna Pavignano, based on “I Trust You” by Francesco Abate and Massimo Carlotto
Director of Photography: Arnaldo Catinari
Editor: Walter Fasano
Music: Marco Zurzolo
Production Designer: Francesco Frigeri
Costume Designer: Milena Canonero
In English, Mandarin/Putonghua, Cantonese and Italian
No ratings, 111 minutes
Related article: Luca Barbareschi Talks About His Crime Thriller ‘Something Good’