Monday, November 08, 2021

Maybe Not Directly Related But...: Cloudy Mountain and The Rescue '21

I don't know to what extent Cloudy Mountain was inspired by the Thai cave rescue of 2018; maybe not at all, but when you see these two a week apart, figure how long a narrative feature with this amount of effects takes to produce, and note that there were Chinese forces helping in Thailand that were only fleetingly mentioned in coverage, and note that Cloudy Mountain does have a former elite soldier trying to lead folks trapped in a cave to safety (among a lot of other stuff).

That character is a railway soldier, not capitalized in the subtitles although it kind of feels that way, especially after seeing a trailer before the movie for another actually named "Railway Soldiers", making me wonder if this is a thing that China is pushing particularly hard right now, certainly another odd "multiple movies about the same thing coming out at once" situation. One sort of odd thing was how Cloudy Mountain had an over-the-credits epilogue about the heroism of railway soldiers and how they pulled China together and their successors are doing the same thing with high-speed rail, including notes about how many of these people died during the construction. On the one hand, did the filmmakers feel like they didn't have quite enough propaganda to pass the censorship board, especially since there was a subplot about management unreasonably expecting this massive engineering done on time no matter what which would absolutely be about greedy businessmen rather than government if the film were made in the West. Even taking that into account, "hundreds of people died" is a weird flex; if communism is all about the workers, doesn't that include worker safety?

That sort of thing makes The Rescue a nice contrast; its filmmakers studiously avoid almost every opportunity for hero worship in order to just tell the story. I suspect that it helps that they've done enough mountaineering documentaries (including ones where co-director Jimmy Chin is a subject) to be realistic about how these folks are wired, and that "daring" and "heroic" aren't the same, to the point where they in some cases are very careful how it's presented. They repeat how the plan to use general anesthetic is desperate several times, to the point where you can feel them hammering on the nail but… Well, I guess we're back to safety here, right? Film especially can fall victim to the human desire to see something have a clever, easily-digested solution, but Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi understand danger well enough to say, no, we're not doing that.

In a way, that focus on safety makes it an interesting contrast with their last picture, Free Solo, where they notably shot the climbing sequence of the title from something like a kilometer away so that their subject wouldn't feel the pressure of the cameras on him. Thinking about how they must have shot the reenactment scenes in The Rescue, it must have been the opposite: Cameras packed into incredibly tight spaces, trying to get good footage of something just a couple feet away, probably a whole bunch of people the audience can't see just off-screen just in case something turned dangerous.

Anyway, both of these have left local theaters but are not yet available on streaming, although if you go looking you can get a Chinese patriotic adventure named "The Rescue" on Prime Video, which, well, isn't the same thing, but is kind of in the same neighborhood. They are both pretty darn good if you enjoy watching people faced with a dangerous crisis and immediately pulling together to work the problem, which is incredibly cathartic after the past year or two.

Feng Bao (Cloudy Mountain)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2021 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

China's National Day generally brings a spate of patriotic behemoths to the box office, star-studded flag-waving blockbusters like this year's The Battle at Lake Changjin and My Country, My Parents. Cloudy Mountain as a movie is kind of the opening act for that - a somewhat lower budget and less star power, maybe not pushing so hard, but trying to be the same sort of crowd-pleaser. It's a solidly and sometimes surprisingly successful sort of minor disaster movie, not likely to make best-of lists but managing to deliver what it promises.

Yudang Mountain is the landmark in question, located in southwestern China near the town of Yunjiang; a 20-year project to build a tunnel for high-speed rail nearing completion. Conscientious director of blasting Hong Yizhou (Zhu Yilong) and scientist Ding Yajun (Chen Shu), also his girlfriend, are still performing a full brace of tests because the terrain is made of unpredictable karst, and what looked like a simple operation can suddenly turn dangerous. He's also making a bit of effort to avoid his demanding father Yunbing (Huang Zhi-Zhong), a former railway soldier, even going off to check some sensors while Yajun picks him up. That's when everything literally starts to come apart, with cave-ins, sinkholes, and rockslides, and project manager Lu Xiaojin (Jiao Junyan) trying to aid rescue workers while assuring her superiors that the tunnel is not in any danger.

Director Jun Li and co-writer Song Sha don't particularly break new ground here, but there's a lot to be said for hitting the ground running and serving up the good stuff. The visual effects in this movie may not be quite top-tier, but they're plenty effective, and they don't spend much time making the audience wait for the action. Jun and his crew shoot energetically with China's many large-screen and 3D theaters in mind, swooping through the air when the action is in the mountains and building boxes with the occasional terrifying drop or chimney while crawling through caves. They follow the typical disaster movie template from initial warning to major event to needing to rescue the trapped while also planning a large-scale mission to prevent something worse, with family issues and bureaucratic interference along the way. The cast appears to be people who Chinese audiences would find familiar faces from television, with Zhu Yilong and Chen Shu an appealing young couple while Huang Zhi-Zhong and Jiao Junyan certainly feel like folks who have played lots of demanding fathers and stern-but-honest middle managers.

It gets a little messy when the disasters aren't front and center, in large part because the filmmakers don't really seem to have an idea of how to come to a climax; lots of moments of transition and resolution happen offscreen, denying the audience moments of satisfaction (whether schmaltzy or stoic) and a clean pivot to the next stage. Along those lines, there's a weird bit where the thinly-sketched folks that the Hongs are trying to rescue just hang back while they go through their family dreams and the audience can't help but notice the implication that they're not as important, and it's not the only time that happens. The actual finale has a hard time juggling the impulses for heroic self-sacrifice and unlikely victories. It often feels like the producers hired folks who are good with the effects and worried less about the rest.

And, of course, the film eventually starts aggressively checking off the "what the film board wants Chinese films to be" boxes; one can't help but notice that the inspiring speech includes "westerners do that, but we do this" when there aren't any non-Chinese people in the movie. And yet, the drive to "reflect socialist values" also winds up being one of the film's strengths: There is something bizarrely soothing about this frenetic movie - just watching people reflexively and competently pull together and help out when faced with an unexpected crisis feels ridiculously good.

Cloudy Mountain is rough in a lot of places, but it's a capable big spectacle that was probably a lot of fun in Imax/3D/D-box, though it doesn't get that sort of release in North America. For two hours of bad stuff happening and good people getting stuff done, though, it's pretty satisfying.

Also at eFilmCritic

The Rescue '21

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2021 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #4 (first-run, digital)

As I mentioned in the recent review of a fictional film, there is very little more satisfying than watching very competent people just get down to doing good with their skills, and that's what The Rescue is in more or less undiluted form. The audience knows the story of how a boy's soccer team was rescued from a cave in Thailand, at least during the film's initial release three years after the event, so the filmmakers just get down to fleshing it out with detail without getting overly technical.

If you're reading this review or seeing the film later, the Tham Luang cave rescue was quite a big deal in mid-2018 - a dozen members of a local soccer team and their coach failed to come home on 23 June, but their bikes were found outside a cave that they often spent time exploring, one which floods every summer but usually not for another month. The government responds quickly, but a local British expatriate who has spent time in the caves quickly recognizes that traversing the now-underwater passages requires the specialized skills of recreational cave divers like Britain's John Volanthen and Richard Stanton (who, coincidentally, has just met a nurse from the area) - although discovering that the team is somehow still alive after a week raises the question of how you get them through over a mile of a dark, twisting underground river: It takes two or three hours to traverse and even the Thai Navy SEALs tended to panic over a much shorter distance.

Even if this hadn't been worldwide news relatively recently, the title of the film probably tips most viewers off as to how it ends, and savvy viewers aren't going to be too far off when they guess what happened to the one retired naval officer who is brought up by name but not part of the interviews. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin seem well-aware that this film may have audiences coming at it from different places over time, and as such make sure that they pay careful attention to both telling the story and explaining the story, using clear graphics to show the scope of the situation and laying out what is going on as things progress, never presuming what the audience knows or wants to know at a certain point.

As a result, it's an impressively humble movie. The filmmakers are careful to not push awe at the rescuers too much, wither in the form of a build-up or humblebrag, though there's still the same sense that these folks are wired differently, and not always for the better, that the filmmakers bring to their mountaineering docs; it's just somewhat muted to reflect how their own accomplishments and what they might sacrifice for them are not the main issues here. There's attention paid to more mundane logistics, such as the folks who are doing less immediately-dangerous boots-on-the-ground civil engineering to make sure that rain doesn't raise the underground river and flood the caves even more. Perhaps more notably, there's willingness to step back from emotional storylines that aren't crucial to the job at hand. One of the divers has just met a woman who might give him a personal connection to the area? That's nice, and an interesting detail but Chin and Vasarhelyi are not going to get anywhere near making a movie where a dozen Thai kids potentially dying primarily plays as a way for a middle-class English guy to achieve some personal growth. Similarly, while they acknowledge that there is mythology around this place and a monk present tied to that, it's not what the movie is about, even if one might be tempted to make that a thematic centerpiece.

They also don't see reenactment as a chance to dazzle as some might. On-the-scene documentary footage was relatively limited and often more useful for showing how challenging the circumstances were (even with handlamps, you can't see much at all), so they have to recreate for clarity, but try to call attention to themselves as little as possible, either in terms of being flashy or overly faithful to first-person perspective. By the time the credits mention that many scenes are recreated on-site with the original divers, a viewer will think that, yes, they kind of had to be, but it feels both immediate enough and enough like a regular movie that those in the audience will be thinking more about what they're seeing than how they're able to see it.

Whoever eventually makes a feature version of this story probably won't be quite so humble; they'll want personality-clashing drama, views into the rescuers inner lives. It's fine to make that movie; those things are all part of the story. The route these filmmakers take, on the other hand, makes for great, plain-spoken communication, and audiences so often need that much more than conventional dramatics given extra weight by being based on a true story.

Also at eFilmCritic

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