A shady investment manager Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zheng) wakes up one day to find that the safe where he kept records of his dodgy dealings, and a vital USB stick containing access to all his funds, has been ransacked. Even worse, there’s no way for him to exit his bedroom. He’s locked in, and every day at 9am, he must choose one undesired consequence (A), or another (B), or else both will happen.
This plot conceit, which has more than a passing resemblance to the Saw movies, is executed, for the most part, in a suitably compelling manner. In order to rise to his position at the top of the company, Zhong has screwed over many people and made some powerful enemies, and as he tries to plot his escape from the locked room, he’s also trying to ascertain the identity of the person who’s doing this to him.
The dilemmas that the protagonist faces are related to his public image being destroyed, and thus, the choices he makes are more to do with optics and perception, than the altogether more grislier options offered in Saw. Thus, whilst the Saw movies are uniformly 18-rated for strong bloody violence and gore, A or B is more commercial with its 12A-level violence and threat.
A or B contains some thrilling action set pieces, from the bold and life-threatening way Zhong manages to escape from the room (there's your moderate threat), to the heart-in-mouth situation where Zhong must choose A: shoot a reporter, or B: a detonator will go off, and his wife, with the corresponding explosives attached to her body, will be the victim.
The image of Zhong as a mercenary bastard who cheats on his wife and betrays his friends in order to progress up the career ladder at the start of the film makes him an enjoyable object of derision, and as such, when the sadistic game is inflicted on him, it’s rather enjoyable (not unlike it is in Saw) to watch a person who’s done sketchy things get their just desserts.
There are several characters who stand to gain from Zhong dying, and as the film reveals the part they played in his capture, intriguing sub-plots and red herrings are revealed. As unpleasant characters are killed off, the pool of potential people who could be on the other end of the phone giving Zhong the unwanted dilemmas shrinks, and the audience pays closer attention to the supporting characters, to tease out potential motivations.
But sadly, in its denouement, A or B pulls its punches and gives the protagonist a redemption arc. Just as he stands to lose everything (of course), he sees the light and realises his wife was his true love all along. Like Sam Rockwell’s character in in Three Billboards…, I didn’t feel he deserved such a forgiving treatment, and thus, what could have been a thoroughly wicked morality tale about the perils of greed is eschewed in favour of a pat, implausible and convenient happy ending.
I can see why the producers went with the more Hollywood route; Asian cinema still has a long way to go before it’s even close to western movies in terms of quality, and production companies don’t want to alienate audiences too much by pushing the boat out.
But, given China is infested with corrupt businessmen like Zhong Xiaonian, I consider the film’s refusal to fully condemn him an opportunity wasted. If the government and the justice system won’t dish the punishment that immoral traders deserve, it’s up to films to make an example of them, even if just as a form of escapism.