‘Full River Red’ overview: Zhang Yimou’s ‘Knives Out’

The knives are out after which some in “Full River Red,” a murkily entertaining train in twist-twist-stab-stab from the Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Set over an extended, darkish and more and more bloody night time at a Song Dynasty army fortress, this twelfth century comedian thriller opens with a contact of “Macbeth” — a visiting chief is discovered murdered in his mattress, suspicion falls instantly on the guards — earlier than peeling again layer after layer of Agatha Christie-esque puzzle-box intrigue. But Zhang’s personal authorial contact is unmistakable within the mazelike palace intrigues, the phalanxes of armed troopers and the ferocious bursts of motion, plus the climactic nationalist overtones of a narrative that pits the need of a number of people towards the destiny of an empire.

That destiny hangs within the steadiness all through the film, which takes place throughout a detente between the rival Song and Jin dynasties, and which opens in the midst of the night time with a whirlwind of violence. The sufferer is a Jin diplomat who’s come to barter with the Song prime minister, Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin), and whose demise instantly triggers executions among the many troopers who had been tasked with defending him. One who survives, seemingly by way of dumb luck, is a comic book bumbler named Zhang Da (comic Shen Teng), who in some way turns into the story’s reluctant sleuth: He’s ordered to determine whodunit by daybreak, which principally provides him simply two hours earlier than he, too, will face the potential for execution.

“Full River Red,” which runs a hefty, not solely justified 157 minutes, thus performs out in one thing near actual time. We are with Zhang Da at almost each second as he and a stern deputy commander, Sun Jun (Jackson Yee, a growlingly efficient foil), query those that had been among the many final to see the diplomat alive, together with an evening watchman and a gaggle of feminine entertainers. Chief among the many latter is the evocatively named Zither (Wang Jiayi, superb), a gorgeous dancer who seems to be as formidable a foe as any of the high-ranking officers within the combine, together with He Li (Zhang Yi) and Wu Yichun (Yue Yunpeng).

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Nearly all of the interrogations finish badly and bloodily; even by the requirements of the classical detective story, Zhang Yimou and Chen Yu’s convoluted script boasts a hell of a physique rely. Accusations are hurled proper and left, throats are slit and punctured, and far is product of a jeweled dagger with a retractable blade. An anachronism? Maybe. (The touches of punk and electronica in Han Hong’s folk-derived rating are an excellent bolder departure from strict interval authenticity.) But if that’s the case, it’s hardly the one contrivance in a narrative that teems with hidden identities, secret allegiances, incriminating paperwork, surprising weapons and innumerable sly reversals.

Zhang Yi and Wang Jiayi within the film “Full River Red.”

(Niu Vision Media)

The director’s devotees could also be reminded at instances of his attractive and elaborate 2002 martial-arts drama, “Hero,” which additionally turned its characters into dwelling chess items in a plot to problem the imperial powers that be. The similarities, although, are extra thematic and structural than stylistic. Unlike “Hero,” with its retina-tickling bursts of coloration, “Full River Red,” whereas as impeccably mounted as all of Zhang’s work, has a extra purposeful, inelegant look. Until day breaks within the film’s eventful closing stretch, the cover-of-darkness cinematography (by Zhao Xiaoding) bathes everybody in dim, shadowy blues, offset solely by the occasional slash of purple. (At instances it tilts towards the monochrome depth of “Shadow,” a classy excessive level of the director’s current filmography.)

The monotony isn’t purely visible. Despite its lashings of violence and smatterings of humor — principally courtesy of Teng’s Zhang Da, whose typically silly, impulsive habits doubles as a little bit of a purple herring — the film willfully induces a sort of claustrophobia, a way of entrapment. That’s becoming sufficient; you’re meant to really feel the noose tighten round every character’s neck in flip, although typically the stress slackens and the story threatens to break down beneath the load of its many convolutions. The rhythm is modulated by occasional, energetic interstitial photographs of the characters racing from one a part of the fortress to a different, typically filming them from overhead, permitting us to visualise them making their manner by way of a bodily and psychological labyrinth.

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What lies on the coronary heart of the labyrinth is greatest not divulged too explicitly right here, although it might account for why the film has turn out to be a field workplace smash (it’s grossed greater than $600 million at house) and the largest business success of Zhang’s prolific, alternately charmed and embattled profession. “Full River Red” is the title of a well-known poem — a lament and a warfare cry (“There we shall feast on barbarian flesh”), believed to have been written by the Song Dynasty common Yue Fei — that almost everybody in China is claimed to know by coronary heart. That lends greater than a contact of jingoism to this in any other case amusing, mechanistic parlor trick, which builds to a surge of emotion that may make your coronary heart sink or soar.

‘Full River Red’

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes

Playing: Starts March 17 usually launch