Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 19, 2018 7:37 pm 
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Theme: "A man who is laid off from a steel factory desperately wants to chase a serial killer in a small city in Southern China."

This is a mood piece and a psychological study on top of a meandering police procedural whose "police" lack real skin in the game and may not have their head screwed on quite right. A better title might be the French one, Une pluie sans fin ( but the Mandarin one is 暴雪将至, Bàoxuě jiāng zhì,"Blizard is approaching" ), because the rain, and later worse, storm, doesn't just loom during the main action of this film but pour down continually on the gloomy dark decaying factory and on protagonist Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong), who is in charge of security, only a minor role at the factory. His main job is catching out petty thefts. But his dream is to be a full-scale detective who can unlock the secrets of the serial killings going on in the region. Details of these are threaded through the narrative, but Yu Gowei's relation to them is shaky. Weaving genre and psychological study with political commentary in a rich and complex and visually pleasing way, much of this film is quite marvelous, even if it's a bit overlong, but toward the end it loses direction, failing to reach a satisfying finale.

The main action takes place in 1997, time of the death of Deng Xiaoping and the handover of Hong Kong, and also when China is shutting down a lot of underperforming factories and casting out most of the workers, a sequence of events talented first time director Doug Yue is registering quiet protest to, along with allusion to the general brutality and crushing effect on the common man of modern China's rapid "progress." It's suggested that many of the employees, once fired, are cast out of their humble dwellings as well. Yet Yu Guowei gets an award as Model Worker of the Year at an annual meeting of the factory for zealously catching thieving workers, and gives an impromptu acceptance speech full of hope. Is this indication of a sudden change of affairs, or of Yu Guowei's cluelessness? Or has he imagined this whole episode? The shakiness of his hold on reality is continually, subtly, referred to. But finally his pursuit of a scrawny individual he intuits is the killer leads to dire consequences. The award ceremony may be real, but it is intensely ironic in relation to the brooding landscape and dire fates of the factory and its workers.

At the outset Yu Guowei appears ten years later in quite a different mode. He has just been released from pirson for an unspecified crime. Eventually we find out what it was. This opening, the present time of the film, is 2008, a time of natural disasters. When Yu Guwei is asked to spell his name on release, for an I.D., his explanation is that it's "yu" for "unnecessary remnants," "guo" for "nation," and "wei" for "glorious." So at the outset there is an allusion to how the "glorious nation" has turned many of its citizens into castoff remnants. And he is one of them.

But in the rained-on main action, Yu Guowei gets minor involvement in investigating serial killings, examining the body of a brutally murdered woman as in so many noir mystery genre films. But there are actual police assigned to the case, primarily Chief Zhang (Du Yuan). Yu Guowei is only called in to give evidence of any absent workers from the factory: but this gives birth to his delusion that he is one of the case investigators.

To bolster Yu Guowei's confidence, but only in a comically inadequate way, he has a dumb but cute assistant, Xiao Liu (Zheng Wei), who clumsily follows him around, gumming things up but praising his brilliance and calling him "maestro." This assistant is deluded too, if in a more benign way. But his eagerness and his boss's indifference to him lead to dire consequences.

Unlike them is the dance hall prostitute, Yanzi (Jiang Yiyang), whom Yu Guowei befriends mainly in hopes that she will have clues about the killer. In a way she is deluded too, notably in thinking that Yu Guowei cares about her. But her dream is practical: to go to Hong Kong and have her own beauty parlor. She gets a humble beauty parlor, and Yu Guowei helps her with that. But she says "There won't be any customers in this weather." We don't see any. Jiang Yiyang's sad, droopy beauty and tawdry elegance give this film much of its atmosphere and beauty - along with the magnificently brooding lineaments of the dark satanic factory, which seems like a decayed building out of Kidnapped even though it is still nominally functioning. The constant rain makes it seem like a grand outhouse of hell.

A long (doubtless too long) late-middle section follows the dreary relationship between Yu and Jiang, the asexual obsessive and the wan dreamer. Does she imagine he cares for him, though they never have sex? Probably not really, certainly not when she discovers he is not mooning over her but spying on her, imagining she may have a relationship with his imaginary killer.

Yue is a subtle and sophisticated weaver of mood, but he needs to find his way to a tighter plotline and clearer action. The Looming Storm melts away in the rain, because when it returns to 2008, it seems to undercut too much of the (intentional) unreliable narrative that has come before, so the viewer can't get a grip on the action at all, and the film's complexities seem to overwhelm it. But Doug Yue is clearly a new director to watch.

The Looming Storm / 暴雪将至, Bàoxuě jiāng zhì, 120 mins, debuted at Tokyo Oct. 2017, and premiered in Paris 14 June 2018, but its French release to cinemas is 25 July. Screened for this review as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival, where it shows 9 July .

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