SIFF 2021: Wisdom Tooth

Wisdom Tooth | IFFR

In his debut film Wisdom Tooth, Liang Ming blends a crime thriller with a coming-of-age story all told through the lens of poverty. Accompanied by gorgeous photography of a snowy northern China fishing village, the film leans heavily on its eclectic cast to tie everything together.

Xi (Xingchen Lyu) is an undocumented teenager who works as a maid and lives with her brother Liang (Xiaoliang Wu) whom she loves deeply. After a mix-up in the public showers, they meet Qing (Jiajia Wang) who quickly becomes an older sister figure to Xi and love interest for Liang. The three along with the siblings’ friend Dong (Weishen Wang) must navigate their existence when an oil spill poisons the fishing population impacting each character’s wellbeing in interconnected ways. This complex narrative is all conveyed through Xi’s young impressionistic eyes and reflects her youthful, scattered focus.

Liang Ming bit off a lot with his first feature. Wisdom Tooth attempts to balance multiple genres with tangled plot points and four unique co-leads. This results in an expectedly messy film, though messy in this case is not synonymous with bad. Using Xi as the film’s focal point. The sporadic energy that comes from being so young supports the convoluted premise. Even when side plotlines are dropped without any conclusion, it is because Xi’s attention moved elsewhere. As the film progresses, its point of view is eventually entirely within Xi’s perspective. Latter scenes give way to her daydreams net displays them as reality. Eventually, Xi’s comprehension of life loses grounding to deliver an intense, dreamy climax.

As an actor himself (Shadow Days 2014), it makes sense that Ming Liang’s greatest strength as a director is focusing on his characters. All four leads standout through the multilayered plot, but Xingchen Lyu’s Xi is what holds the film together. While her character did not bring structure to the muddled film, it did provide a purpose to the chaos.