A or B (China, 2018)

A or B plays with game-like mechanisms that make it comparable to Saw (2004) or even the terrific Thai horror 13: Game of Death (2006). Only with less blood. We see Zhong Xiaonan (Xu Zheng) participate in the game where he’s only allowed to choose between two things which will both affect him negatively. While admittedly, none of the high concepts presented in the film are particularly new, or exciting enough, it is interesting to look at how these seemingly flawed aspects work for the benefit of its message. Unlike the Saw films, we do not open with the torture room. Rather, the story unfolds in an overly patient, mostly dragging, manner. From the beginning, it is revealed to us that Zhong became rich from many years of rigging the stock market. We’re compelled to despise him when we become witness to his dispute with two co-conspirators and his failing marriage to Wei Simeng (Wang Likun).

The theme of the film is clear from the onset: there’s an apparent rejection of capitalist excesses especially, of crimes driven by and making use of it. What unfolds in A or B is a systematic illustration of the consequences of greed, a theme which is closer to Wall Street (1987) than Saw, only with less nuance towards capitalist values. While the characters may make a resolution to go back to a “simple life”, what they are being set up to is a point of no turning back by the game-master. The choices presented to Zhong only push the unknown antagonists’ agenda further – to make Zhong acknowledge his crimes and repeat the process of selecting an option.

Interestingly, all these plot points lead towards a larger agenda which at first is seemingly in the background. The media entities bear an image of neutrality while government and law enforcement entities aren’t shaded with any flaws. Both have retained their integrity as institutions. “What is to be done with these excesses?” is essentially what the film is asking. In its resolution, we see the key characters being addressed by law enforcement entities.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the technical bravura of the film’s conclusion leads it to become a spectacular public service announcement on the dangers of greedy and what legal consequences you will face if you behave in a similar manner. The film services media and law enforcement institutions by maintaining their integrity instead of questioning whether they are complicit in the crime.

In a way, the film cannot remove itself from what it just depicted. The scenes represent a kind of government program, for which the film itself becomes a programming mechanism. It seeks to rationalize the actions that the law will take towards an individual or a party who commit similar crimes, and makes constant emotional appeals by showing  marriage conflict caused by too much work or the death of a loved-one as a result of insatiable greed. What A or B provides is this glimpse of how Chinese government propaganda works in popular culture. Just as Zhong was meant to choose between two negative consequences over and over, the film operates as a bearer of the state’s agenda through sheer repetition.

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