Prolific Sixth Generation Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai has tried on many different stylistic hats in his young career, from the mannered neo-noir of So Close To Paradise to his skilled Vittorio De Sica imitation Beijing Bicycle, but he's really a sentimentalist at heart. Though his films bristle with some political sentiment—his controversial breakthrough Frozen was directed under a pseudonym, and Bicycle forwarded a sharp critique of the new democratized economy—they lack any memorable distinctions. Ask anyone what a Wang Xiaoshuai film looks like, and you'll get about 10 different answers, depending on which ones they've seen. With Drifters, Wang apes the slow, studied, master-shot cinema of someone like Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers Of Shanghai), especially in the first half, when seemingly the only information parsed out is how the sad-sack hero looks in an exquisitely composed frame. Those who haven't nodded off will discover later that the film is really just a melodrama (and a syrupy one at that) about a father's desperate attempts to cling to his son and a world that doesn't have much use for him.
If only his approach to the material weren't so fussy, Wang might not have buried some potentially interesting observations about family ties and the false promises of the immigrant experience. As the film opens, Duan Long has returned to his hometown in a Fijian outpost where many embark to the West in the hope for a better life. After being deported from the U.S., Duan counts himself as one of the few to survive the trip back home, in which many suffocated from toxic materials left on the boat. But he certainly isn't given reasons to feel lucky: His parents chide him for slacking off and his former in-laws won't allow him to see his only son. As Duan and his family lobby for his parental rights to be restored, he finds some solace in a relationship with Shu Yan, a beautiful member of a traveling Shanghai opera troupe.
With his failure in the States, the tragic voyage home, and his forced removal from his son's life, there's no doubt Duan has been put through extraordinary trauma already, and his future isn't filled with promise. But during the excessively formalized early scenes, this is dramatized by the same shot in different settings: Static long takes of him smoking with his head down. Drifters picks up briefly during a playful sequence in which Duan, his girlfriend, and his brother (Wang Zhilang) are allowed to spend an afternoon with his son, but even then, Wang is trading soporific for sentimental, and not much is gained in the transaction. Next time, he'll have to try another style on for size.