“Full River Red” Review: “Knives Out” by Zhang Yimou

The knives are out and then some in “Full River Red,” a murky fun exercise in twist-twist-stab-stab from Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Set during a long, dark and increasingly bloody night in a Song dynasty military fortress, this 12th-century comic mystery opens with a Macbeth touch — a visiting chieftain is found murdered in his bed, suspicion immediately falls on the guards — before peeling back layer after layer of Agatha Christie-style puzzle-box intrigue. But Zhang’s authorial touch is unmistakable in the labyrinthine intrigues of the palace, the phalanxes of armed soldiers and wild bursts of action, as well as the overriding nationalistic undertones of a story that pits the will of many individuals against the fate of an empire.

That fate hangs in the balance throughout the film, which is set during a recession between the rival Song and Jin dynasties, and which opens in the middle of the night with a whirlwind of violence. The victim is a Jin diplomat who has come to negotiate with the Song prime minister, Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin), and whose death immediately sparks executions among the soldiers tasked with protecting him. One survivor, seemingly by dumb luck, is a comedian named Zhang Da (comedian Shen Teng), who somehow becomes the story’s reluctant assassin: He’s ordered to figure out the whodunit by dawn, which he basically also gives just two hours before. , will face the possibility of execution.

“Full River Red,” which runs at a hefty, not entirely justified 157 minutes, thus plays out in something near real time. We’re with Zhang Da almost every moment as he and a stern lieutenant, Sun Jun (Jackson Yee, a faster-than-effective foil), interrogate those who were among the last to see the diplomat alive, including a night watchman and a group of female entertainers. Chief among the latter is the suggestive Zither (Wang Jiayi, very good), a beautiful dancer who proves as formidable an enemy as any of the high-ranking officials in the mix, including He Li (Zhang Yi) and Wu. Yichun (Yue Yunpeng).

Almost all interrogations end badly and bloody. Even by classic detective story standards, Zhang Yimou and Chen Yu’s complex script boasts one hell of a body. Charges are hurled left and right, necks are torn and pierced, and many are made of a jeweled dagger with a folding blade. Anachronism; It can. (The touches of punk and electronica in Han Hong’s musical score are an even bolder departure from the austere authenticity of the period.) But if so, it’s not the only artifice in a story teeming with hidden identities, secret allegiances, guilt documents, unexpected weapons and countless cunning twists.

Zhang Yi and Wang Jiayi in the movie “Full River Red”.

(Niu Vision Media)

Devotees of the director may be reminded at times of the magnificent and elaborate 2002 martial arts drama ‘Hero’, which also turned its characters into living chess pieces in a plot to challenge imperial powers. The similarities, however, are more thematic and structural than stylistic. Unlike “Hero,” with its retina-tickling explosions of color, “Full River Red,” while as impeccably staged as all of Zhang’s works, has a more functional, understated look. By the time the day breaks in the film’s busy close, the cover cinematography of darkness (by Zhao Xiaoding) bathes everyone in faint, shadowy blues, offset only by the occasional slash of red. (At times it leans toward the monochromatic intensity of “Shadow,” an elegant high point in the director’s recent filmography.)

Monotony is not purely visual. Despite the jolts of violence and traces of humor—thanks mainly to Teng’s Zhang Da, whose often-foolish, impulsive behavior doubles as a red herring—the film deliberately evokes a kind of claustrophobia, a sense of entrapment. This fits quite well. you’re meant to feel the noose tighten around each character’s neck in turn, though sometimes the tension loosens and the story threatens to collapse under the weight of its many twists and turns. The pace is set by occasional energetic mid-shots of the characters running from one part of the fortress to another, sometimes filming them from above, allowing us to visualize them traversing a physical and psychological maze.

What lies at the heart of the maze is best not revealed too explicitly here, though it may explain why the film has become a box office smash (it has grossed more than $600 million domestically) and the biggest commercial success of Zhang’s production. , alternately. charmed and suffering career. “Full River Red” is the title of a famous poem — a lament and battle cry (“There we shall feast with the flesh of barbarians”), believed to have been written by the Song Dynasty general Yue Fei — that almost everyone in China is he said to know by heart. This lends more than a touch of jingoism to this otherwise fun, mechanical parlor trick, which creates a wave of emotion that can make your heart sink or soar.

“Full River Red”

In Mandarin with English subtitles

It has not been rated

Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes

Game: Launches March 17 in general release

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