in , ,

Are You Lonesome Tonight? Is Full of Panache, Not Passion

Film noir, once left for dead in the alleyway of the late 1950s, still continues to inform and energize filmmakers across the world. Almost every month, a new iteration shows up, whether on demand, at a festival, or in the theaters, continually experimenting with the form and finding new stories to tell. From China to North American streaming this week comes Are You Lonesome Tonight?, a Cannes Camera d’Or-nominated debut from Wen Shipei. It’s a dazzling neon-noir that packs plenty of panache even if it lacks the passion that makes the best noir films sizzle.

Director and co-writer Wen Shipei is a graduate of the film program at Columbia University where he studied directing and screenwriting. After two he completed short films, his Are You Lonesome Tonight? was invited to the Special Program at 2021 Cannes and subsequently screened at the 2021 Toronto International and San Sebastian Film Festivals, where it was picked up by Film Movement for North American distribution and its streaming debut.

Like so many great films noir, Are You Lonesome Tonight? begins in the dark of night and drops its everyman protagonist into the middle of a crime scene. Wang Xueming (Eddie Peng) is an unassuming AC repairman who accidentally hits a pedestrian with his van, panics, and flees the scene. A silent water buffalo is the only witness and Wang disposes of the body in a nearby slough. But his guilt will not abate, until a chance meeting leads him to the victim’s widow. The grieving Mrs. Liang (Sylvia Chang), isolated and lonely, welcomes his companionship, if warily. When Wang and the widow grow closer, he is surprised to learn an inconvenient fact: that her dead husband’s body was discovered riddled with bullets. That hit-and-run was more complicated than he believed.

An air conditioning repairman and a female client share a cigarette in an apartment.
Eddie Peng and Sylvia Chang in Are You Lonesome Tonight? Photo: courtesy Dirty Monkey Studios and Film Movement.

While Wang is determined to piece together the complete events of that fateful night, he’s not alone. There is also an assassin lurking in the shadows (Lu Xin) who spotted Wang’s van at the site of the crime. Further, the detective in charge of the investigation, Chen (Wang Yanhui), displays an unhealthy obsession with the case. Told in flashback from Wang’s prison cell years after the fact, Are You Lonesome Tonight? links three men to the crime and the widow, but the truth of the matter remains tangled in a web of faulty memories and intentional misdirection.

Set in Guangzhou in the 1990s, Are You Lonesome Tonight? employs the standard narrative conceits of a traditional film noir—the late-night crime, the duped protagonist, the mysterious woman, the labyrinthine network of criminality, and the corrupt law enforcement system—while evoking the languid neon-noir visual design of a Wong Kar-Wai. The film’s four credited cinematographers (Cederic Cheung-Lau, Han Xiaosu, Heng Zhang, Andreas Thalhammer) have worked out a distinctly noir-infused vision of a nighttime Guangzhou flush in bright neon and dark streets, drenched by torrential rain, that gives the film its distinctive panache.

A man in a baseball-style work cap walks through a nighttime market batched in deep crimson and green colors.
Eddie Peng as Wang Xueming in Are You Lonesome Tonight? Photo: courtesy Dirty Monkey Studios and Film Movement.

Where the collaboration of four cinematographers yields a coherent visual style in Are You Lonesome Tonight?, the same cannot be said for that of the film’s four credited writers. The narrative here is all telling and retelling, flashbacks for the sake of flashbacks, a circuitous and convoluted search for a truth that, when finally revealed, isn’t especially revealing. Shipei is one of the writers;  Zhao Binghao, Wang Yinuo, and, Noe Dodson, the other three. Where his film displays a signature visual talent, the lack of coherence—or is it confidence?—in the story itself is disappointing.

Granted, there’s a feverish pitch to the narration (another noir trope), and Peng and Yang give the script their all with strong performances as two people who refuse to accept their fates. Wang retells his story again and again, each time with variations that may or may not be closer to the truth. A story told from a jail cell can make for a fascinating narrative, but Are You Lonesome Tonight? lacks, simply, the passion of a simmering noir. Were there some sparks between the leads or at least a more invested exploration of a relationship between the two—even a perfectly nonsexual one—viewers might find themselves more engaged in the tale Wang tells.

At the end, though, without revealing the protagonist’s ultimate fate, it’s hard to say just how much audiences will care whether Wang rots in prison or finds his freedom. That’s something of a shame, given the film’s stylish, evocative, neon-noir visual design. But Wen Shipei is nonetheless a filmmaker to watch. Given this promising debut, he’s proven himself already capable of eliciting strong performances from charismatic leads and shepherding a collaboration of cinematographers to a coherent, striking visual design. Next, he’ll need only a story that matches his other talents.

Film Movement presents Are You Lonesome Tonight? directed by Wen Shipei and starring Eddie Peng, Sylvia Chang, Wang Yanhui, and Jiang Peiyao. 95 minutes, in Language: Chinese with English subtitles. Available on demand March 17, 2023.


Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

Leave a Reply

Film Obsessive welcomes your comments. All submissions are moderated. Replies including personal attacks, spam, and other offensive remarks will not be published. Email addresses will not be visible on published comments.

Supercell’s Big-Bad Tornado Aims for Old-School Feels

Angeline Ball and Hugh O'Conor in the 2003 adaptation of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, Ball as Molly Bloom licking the face of O'Conor as Stephen Dedalus.

A Taste of Cinema in James Joyce’s Ulysses