A meaning to the madness.
Bitter, always grumpy, and avoiding any obvious emotion, Roberto (Ricardo Darín) treats his customers with the diligence of a staunch bureaucrat not befitting, but actually, perfect for a dusty hardware store that sells a limited amount of supplies. Roberto often answers in short sentences, at the edge of cursing, but instead holds a serious, pensive grimace.
When he’s not unpacking boxes, making sure he hasn’t been ripped off or telling customers to fuck off, he pretends not to like Mari, an acquaintance who’s madly in love with him. She owns a farm and one cow in the countryside of Argentina. Mari is visiting family, and often goes to Roberto’s store, hoping that he will take her out.
His days play out methodically: he goes to sleep every night at 11 pm. He turns on his alarm and turns off his lamplight. His meals never vary much (a bread roll and coffee) and neither do his outfits.
Roberto collects news clippings of bizarre stories from a stack of newspapers a friend brings him every week. When he finds one, he cuts it out and adds it to his album, reading them over and remarking on the madness of the incident.
On a normal day, he witnesses a Chinese immigrant get thrown out of a taxi onto the hard concrete. Roberto helps him get up. Jun only speaks Chinese, and has an address tattooed on his arm. The address leads to Jun’s uncle’s store, but when they go, they are told it was sold, and the uncle is long gone.
Roberto tries to get rid of Jun by asking police to help him. The main policeman insists that he must arrest Jun for being in the country illegally. This infuriates Roberto who’s trying to help Jun, so he head-butts the cop. They flee, and now Roberto is stuck with Jun. He decides to watch over him until they find Jun’s uncle.
Neither can speak each other’s language, so we are left with Roberto playing charades and Jun nodding. This creates uncomfortable moments for both characters especially Roberto who is unaccustomed to sharing his home with anyone and being emotionally close. He tries to keep an evasive tone while Jun always seems willing to be helpful and friendly.
Roberto realizes the Chinese delivery boy speaks the same dialect as Jun, and is able to find out about Jun’s past. Knowing these details allow Roberto to be more sympathetic towards Jun.
The film draws on image of a cow as it appears in Mari’s photo, a news clipping and a mural Jun paints, telling us the ties between Roberto and Jun go beyond one event in Jun’s past. The film touches on the absurdities of life, the seemingly normal days that turn unpredictable, and the existential questions that arise. But the unusual aspects of the movie never undermine the realism and the stark portrayal of Roberto and the quiet, lonely life he leads. The combination of the absurd and the normal adds funny, quirky moments that would otherwise not exist.
In Wild Tales Ricardo Darín played a driver frustrated with the system society has set in place, ultimately leading him to a path of destruction. In Un Cuento Chino (The Chinese Tale) there are glimmers of that frustration, tinged with depression. The driver from Wild Tales succumbs to destruction, but in The Chinese Tale there’s a possibility of change and love. Roberto tries to find meaning to the madness. Can you make something out of an absurd moment? For Roberto it’s hard to explain, but it becomes tangible when he’s part of his own bizarre story. The unpredictable is often the extraordinary.
* Un Cuento Chino: an expression used by many Spanish speakers to describe a false story that is meant to trick them. It’s a long story with many intricate lies. Usually people will say this as it relates to politicians. It does not mean Chinese Take-Out, as IMDb will have you know.