Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Chen Yu and Zhang Yimou
It's that time again: Zhang Yimou makes a patriotic period piece, either because he got in trouble with the Communist Party and had to bail himself out, or because he means it; such is the traditional Western exegesis of Hero, anyway, though the decision tree usually depends on whether you like wuxia films, so sometimes I wonder if what people were really doing when they were complaining about that film in 2004 was saying "please continue making arthouse movies that present your exotic Cathay in ways that I, a sophisticate, prefer." Now, I've said before that I don't think people even try to imagine that doing large-scale art in China might be different from doing it in the West, but as his career goes on, I am increasingly lost trying to pin down Zhang's politics. One presumes that the 71 year old Zhang knows he is not going to overthrow the PRC with a movie, nor live to see it reform into something more humane, and Curse of the Golden Flower all the way back in 2006 was as much a defeated admission of this as it is anything else, which is why it's his most depressing masterpiece by some margin, even in a career that includes Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. For my part, anyway, I've traditionally suggested that people lay off him and, in general, maybe not be so ready to infer outright diabolical portent in Chinese patriotic filmmaking, though as for this latter injunction, now I'm the one being selfish, because Chinese patriotic filmmaking can at least still scratch my own jingoistic itches (I'm just a cosmopolitan that way). And there is some evidence that Zhang did get in trouble, with 2020's One Second, a film reportedly critical of the Cultural Revolution—that old chestnut—and, obliquely, censorship. It's still not available even as, like, an imported DVD or anything.*
But whatever it did, it probably didn't demand that Zhang go off and make three patriotic films in a row, and of increasingly strident propaganda value, to boot, starting with 2021's Cliff Walkers, which is patriotic in the most benign sense (it's about World War II), and continuing with 2022's Snipers (co-directed with his daughter Mo), which is as nuanced and even-handed as a Chinese movie about killing evil Americans could probably get. And now comes Full River Red, and even for me it's difficult to not raise my eyebrows at it, ending as it does with a "now let's invade Taiwan, no, seriously, let's invade Taiwan" analogy that's made with startling forthrightness even for a contemporary Chinese patriotic cinema that's been increasingly happy to pump out blockbusters about how they "won" the last Sino-American war. It's Zhang, so of course there's stuff that complicates this here—I'd say the same for Hero's authoritarianism only a lot more full-throatedly, as Hero was a terrific exercise in telling a story that could be interpreted by one audience (Chinese censors) one way and another audience (Americans who understood the tragedy of an individual subsumed into an empire) another way, but even on that count, Full River Red is only doing the same things as his early 21st wuxia trilogy (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Golden Flower) at a much more muted level, suggesting in a satirical whisper that one problem could be the ossified institutions of Chinese power, and this time it's suggesting that this is a problem mainly because it prevents successful imperialism.
These nuances really are almost completely overshadowed by the historical analogy, though, summed up by the poem from which it takes its name, which, in one of the film's smaller annoyances, apparently had its actual official English title run through Google translate so that it's almost a nonsense phrase. I'll say this: I'm amused, in a somewhat somber "history repeats" sort of way, by the flexibility of a poem written 400 years after the fact as a patriotic allegory, and that refers generically to the Xiongnu (much as we might have once used its cognate, "the Hun"), an enemy that had been laid low 1500 years before that, that is now redeployed 500 years after its writing for another patriotic allegory. Though what a river has to do with it exactly is nebulous from the poem's content—I assume it refers to the Huai, the Song/Jin border for much of their mutually-antagonistic existence, unless it refers to the Yangzi crossing at Ma'anshan, the location of the Battle of Caishi, though its nominal writer, Song general Yue Fei, would not have had many opinions about that, what with having been dead for almost two decades. Both rivers, incidentally, are narrower than the Taiwan Strait, something I offer as food for thought.
Despite this, of the several recent Zhangs this is the one that's gotten the most well-publicized American release, go figure, given that it's also the one that most requires a familiarity with Chinese history, with the already-dead personage of Yue Fei being of significantly more importance to the film than any character who's actually in it, and with the ideal audience for the film pretty much already aware that Song chancellor Qin Hui is an infamous dickhead who framed the loyal general and had him executed. (My personal evaluation of its audience demographic is that it's 95% Chinese students from CMU who chose the oddest Chinese-language date movie since Long Day's Journey Into Night and laughed at dialogue jokes I think you need to know Chinese to get, and 5% Irish-American Zhang fans who assumed that Qin Hui was a good guy, or at least a legitimate authority, for most of the movie, possibly because he got hung up on how to pronounce names in the opening text block before he could finish reading it.)
What all this political discussion leaves out (and American takes on the film, reflecting our decadent film culture, have therefore tended to leave out), is that this movie is nearly unacceptable as a movie, but I would like to circle back to this because it's by an enormous margin, to me, the most salient and inexplicable feature of it.
For now, let us hark back to roughly the year 1146, where we find the Song Dynasty at its lowest ebb before their Manchurian suzerains, the Jin, in no small part thanks the dovish unctuousness of men like Qin Hui. In the palace of that selfsame chancellor (Lei Jiayin), a murder has been committed against the Jin envoy. Why is nebulous at present, though it points to massive security failures, and you know what that means, random executions of guards, and we get a sense of the tone Zhang's striking here, as the executions of desperate men by lot occur with bleak, vinegary comedy. A survivor of this discipline, however, apparent schlub Zhang Da (Shen Teng), winds up being hauled before the chancellor and, impressing him with his low cunning, tasked with investigating this assassination alongside one of the officers of the chancellor's guard, his striver uncle (technically his uncle, though he's younger than Da and Da helped raise him alongside his aunt), Sun Jun (Jackson Yee). For his part, Jun has recently managed a promotion by slitting the throat of another officer and suspect, much to Da's chagrin given that he was a lead, and frustratingly, Jun tends to do this every time they get a lead. So that's another suspect right there. But there are also the common noun-named feminine entertainers who visited the Jin envoy in the night, particularly Zither (Wang Jiayi); likewise is there a wagon driver (I'm not sure who played him); and, especially, there are the two vying mandarins, He Li (Zhang Yi, a bona fide Zhang Yimou repertory player now, and why not, in transliteration, at least, they appear to have a lot in common) and Wu Yichun (Yue Yungpeng). And all along, Da is pretty sure he's going to be executed regardless, and the strict timetable he's been given to complete his investigation—two hours—doesn't bode well for him seeing another dawn.
So, a murder mystery, and a funny one—funnier than Glass Onion, at least—with a cast unusually heavy on professional comedy guys (Shen and Yue particularly) to underscore that, though probably nobody does it here better than Zhang Yi (not, to the best of my knowledge, a comic actor), who walks away with the movie whenever he's around as the most overtly villainous of the cast, I expect quite intentionally styled and performed to resemble the most stereotypical conception, maybe even the most stereotypical Western conception, of "fey sinister Chinese official" possible, all long sleeves and haughty arrogance, and continually striking social inferiors with his fan when he's not stabbing them with a mechanically-complex trick dagger. He is, in any case, challenged mostly by his narrative rival, Yue's Wu, who effectively winds up a third member to Da and Jun's investigation party, though there's every possibility he has his own agenda, and Yue uses his physicality (he's shorter and roly-polier than Zhang Yi) to hint at both his subordination and the roiling resentment inherent in that subordination.
The script undergirding this comic murder mystery, by Zhang Yimou and co-writer Chen Yu (latterly of Snipers), is a good one, maybe even more than it is a functional one. It's certainly not nothing, at least, that this 159 minute murder mystery never really feels ill-paced on a screenplay level, and for the most part it knows how to play its nasty comedy—that nastiness ranging from basically being invited to laugh at the ugliness of the violence and corruption inherent in the authoritarian Song system to the perversity of quippy bits delivered by jaded servants of the state coming in between killings, tortures, and rapes—and it knows how to ratchet that down naturally, the laughs coming more seldomly as each killing, torture, or rape inflicts another psychic wound on our characters that they pretend not to notice until eventually the humor is bled out of it entirely. It likewise knows how to keep its mystery interesting in its own right, centering it upon the maguffin of a secret Jin letter, but elaborating upon this by reiterating that investigating this mystery for the regime makes you a liability to the regime, and by piling one conspiracy atop another—albeit basically until the point that the weight of all this plot breaks the film's back.
That's what I mean when I say it's quite possibly not as functional as it is good: there is a sense even while you're watching it that while each individual scene links to the one before and after, somehow they don't quite form a completely logical chain, and it is very unclear on a first watch exactly how the end squares completely with the beginnings, or even with the middle, nowhere moreso than in Shen's performance. He's completely adept given what we know in the middle of any particular scene, but winds up with a character neither he nor the screenplay has tried to make sense of top-to-bottom, so that the "aw man, why me?" appeal of most of his performance feels slightly disingenuous by the end, when he's broken through to full-tilt patriotic melodrama.
But as noted, that could just be a "first watch" problem of a complicated and twisty narrative that occupies practically three hours (I do not believe it is a first watch problem, and I say this with all due respect, that the denouement centers on rediscovering that motherfucking poem; I mean, I like the ending of that one Star Trek episode, "The Omega Glory," but I daresay it still would've been too sappy to have been the basis for three). The more thoroughgoing problem, then, is that I don't know if I want to give this Zhang Yimou movie—this Zhang Yimou movie!—a second watch. And that is rare. There's a few of his movies that I feel that way about: The Story of Qiu Ju is neorealist-boring enough that while I don't begrudge my time with it, I think I got all I needed out of it; I simply hate the middle stretch of Red Sorghum enough that I'm not in a hurry to come back to it; and his other go at a black comedy-thriller, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, might've been a caution to be wary of this go at a black comedy-thriller, though fortunately it turned out that that caution could be safely ignored. But I have never, ever seen "bad Zhang" where it was bad because it was just plain shit directed.
And this is shit directed: I have not made a big deal about the story taking place overnight, because I don't need to, every frame of the first two hours and change of this movie does that for me, slathered in this absolutely absurd blue, some being definitely color correction, a lot just being in-camera so at least when there is another light source, we get flashes of, like, normal skin tones and color, but this happens so extremely rarely the movie might as well not have bothered. This is, I'll remind you, one of the paramount color stylists of the 21st century, so I cannot help but assume this is intentional, some totalizing gambit from a guy who specializes in totalizing gambits, and it is a totalizing failure, this insane hyper-fake day-for-night that I initially thought was fucking dawn, so the sun would rise, and which I kept expecting, even forty minutes in, would shift in some way, but basically never does until the last twenty minutes, where daylight finally happens and it's better but even now seems kind of grossly metallic, though maybe that's just what happens when you stare at BLUE for 130 minutes and your cones are all messed up.
And the really crazy thing is that Zhang came up with cinematographers, Gu Changwei and Zhao Fei, who knew implicitly how to do pre-industrial night (and day-for-night!), and how to light dark scenes—the resemblance of the palace to the shooting location in Raise the Red Lantern is so strong that I'd like to ask if it was intentional, except now it looks terrible, because there is nothing lighting these scenes, because there doesn't need to be, because the sun is fucking out, something that becomes increasingly obnoxious as we go on and everybody appears to be able to see perfectly well across these witching hours, despite no torches, etc., and only occasionally a lantern (and only inside somebody's house). This obscures the production design, which we get hints of being pretty good (a lot of labyrinth-like spaces defined by the baroque geometric patterns of screens), so that's on top of it being irritating on a story logic level. And it becomes, and remains for a very long time, stultifying, the cinematic equivalent of staring for two hours at the bottom of a half-finished bowl of Boo-berry. This does not even go into the actual digital cinematography itself, courtesy Zhang's customary and ordinarily reliable partner Zhao Xiaoding, which is fine for some technical definition of fine, given the apparent non-task Zhang gave him, until it's not, and one source straight up does not match the other used in the intercutting, so that one has a greasy, disgusting videoey quality that jars mightily with the rest, which at least looked "normal" within the aesthetic confines of permanent teal.
So we might as well lay into Li Yongyi's editing, and while Li has arguably been a weaker link in Zhang's team (Cliff Walkers has some iffy editing), this is just something else, and while it's at least not so pervasive, there are scenes with shockingly awful editing, like a C+ film student trying to go for "tension" and finding "spasticity," with several conversations here finding individual lines of dialogue, short lines of dialogue, sliced up across four or five shots, and it's kind of subliminally bad throughout, emphasizing the screenplay's own biggest shortcoming, which is that people separate for no apparent reason that would make sense in-universe (usually they have some structural reason, to make private asides for us to hear, but damningly, not always), only to be right back with the group a shot or two later. And it's all a great shame, because I really like the pressure-cooker atmosphere, kind of love some of the performances, and somehow Zhang found the time for some weird novelties—this Zhang film has a soundtrack, a frequently anachronistic thing that uses music melding Chinese rap and Chinese traditional instrumentation, and it sounds real cool, and even if it's also used exactly the way you'd guess a 71 year old man who just caught up on American 90s and 00s crime movies in the past couple of years** would use them, I never actually got tired of the dozen or so shots of watching characters rush through the maze of the palace with steely determination while somebody dropped Mandarin rhymes on me, except to the extent that I got extremely tired of looking at this movie as a whole within a half hour, because I don't know how anybody couldn't. It is, presumably, the laziest piece of hacked-out junk Zhang has ever made. The good news is that, for all that they apparently want to go to war with us, we and the Chinese are at heart much the same: Full River Red is shaping up to be Zhang's most successful movie ever, so I guess we have that in common, because we don't care if our blockbusters look like complete garbage either.
*Though this appears to be mostly the fault of Mubi, the cut-rate Criterion.
**See also, "pointless chapter headings in Cliff Walkers."