Sunday, October 22, 2023

Under the Light.

Genuinely curious what the deal with this thing's censorship-related delays, because it's apparently been kicking around years. Did it talk more directly about how its corrupt public official made it as far as he did in its original version? Was the blackmail video not hilariously pixelated? Or was it just a small change that needed to be made but reshoots were tough during covid? One notes that this apparently running afoul of the censors didn't seem to slow Zhang down much; he's continued to make a movie a year, even during a pandemic. It's kind of odd that the censors don't seem to hold grudges, to me. Also, did the censor board change enough that the script that they approved about corruption was okay, but the finished film wasn't?

It's weird, but seems to have turned out okay; Zhang appears to have had the biggest hits of both Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, although Full River Red was a monster compared to this (FRR made something like $650M, while Under the Light will be in the $200M range). Interestingly, I just saw Variety tweet an article out about FRR being shopped, and I kind of wonder if someone like Sony Pictures Classics or the like might feel it's worth picking it up and then doing a release geared to English-speaking boutique-house people. I've talked about folks doing that a lot, and I don't know that it's really happened recently - I honestly don't know if it's happened since Lagaan, 20+ years ago - but I keep wondering about doing it every time I see something that feels like it could have a wider audience.

One other thing: No real reaction from the mostly-Chinese [-American] audience to the Silent Night trailer which heavily hyped John Woo as the director. Not that I'm sure he's necessarily that big a name anywhere now, but I'm guessing the trailer was attached to this movie in part because someone figured the one with a Chinese director would be of interest.

Jian ru pan shi (Under the Light)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2023 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

Ir's been noted that this is the first present-day, city-set movie Zhang Yimou has directed in a long time, and it's certainly got him flexing different muscles visually, but there are a couple scenes early on that remind one that is not all that far of from his period pieces thematically. The scheming ministers are now businessmen and mayors, but they're still arranging marriages and adopting heirs, commanding secret armies, and creating vast spy networks, though much of that is now electronic. Maybe that's why it sat on a shelf while Zhang cranked out at least three other movies - you can't imply present-day China is too much like its glorious past.

As things start in present day (and fictitious) Jinjiang City, a bus has been hijacked by Kong Sanshun (Wang Xun), demanding to speak with Vice-Mayor Zheng Gang (Zhang Guoli) and get a message to the press, almost killing him before police technician - and Zheng's adopted son - Su Jianming (Lei Jiayin) notes that his bomb can be detonated remotely. Su is then invited to a dinner with Li Zhitan (Yu Hewei), billionaire head of the Jinwu Group and the city's richest man, apparently looking to recruit the son of his old rival Zheng, even as he plans his own retirement and hand-off to up-and-coming executive David (Sun Yi-zhou), who is engaged to his pregnant daughter Sha (Chen Tong). Jianming instead pushes to be the lead investigator on the bombing, digging into surveillance video with fellow technicians Li Juilin (Zhou Dongyu) - also his ex-girlfriend - and Sun Heyang (Xu Zili), although the three will soon discover that investigating motives and corruption is much more complicated than their usual job.

Audiences clearly enjoy this sort of backstabbing, as it's Zhang's second holliday blockbuster of the year to do this sort of mix of political and family intrigue (albeit with the settings separated by nearly 900 years). It's gleefully nasty as its two poles plot against each other while also being inextricably tied together. Yu Hewei's Liz Zhitan is seemingly happier to get his hands dirty, and some of the violence is delightfully brutal, even if the cops are not involved; he gets to establish his nasty bona fides early and Yu does nifty work in making Li someone who could be slick but seemingly prefers to drop his mask very quickly. Zhang Guoli's Zheng is that slick, and it's never entirely clear whether he's squeamish or just practical where violence is concerned, also handling the somewhat fractious relationship with Su well. Joan Chen Chong is also on the periphery of this group as Zheng's wife He Xiuli, and if she's only seen a bit early on, it's no surprise when she grabs a few scenes by the throat later.

Between them, these two create a tremendous mess for the trio of nerdy cops tasked with investigating just how all of this ties together (I sort of suspect that there is a certain amount of The Big Sleep "does it matter just who ordered whom to kill someone else?" going on here), as one thing leads to another and suspects seem to take great pains to make sure that they can be rubbed out before Jianming can use them to nail Li Zhitan to the wall. It's kind of interesting that the heroes in this picture are uncool techs, with all three bespectacled and Lei Jiayin in particular seeming to carry a bit more paunch than a movie star usually does; that, apparently, is the new dedicated worker aiming to keep the fat cats honest. Lei feels like a particularly unconventional hero, slumped from carrying a chip on his shoulder and a bit of envy, but still smart and a bit arrogant about it underneath his self-loathing. It does let Zhou Dongyu - a petite actress not far removed from playing a bullied high-school student to much acclaim in Better Days - play entertainingly against type as the sarcastic partner who probably wasn't going to let Jianming get away with much even before he dumped her, giving their scenes prickly chemistry that can go all-business as easily as it could become rekindled romance.

It's great to look at, of course, with the picture often bathed in colorful but harsh, overly bright light as Zhang trains a piercing eye on the present the way he might unearth the corruption in the past; tourist boats become blobs from all the golden light they throw off, and the blue lights atop police cars cut through the dark like lasers. But there's also something older and more primal here, even before the literally buried evidence comes to light: Elevated walkways around high-rise apartment buildings make it look like the old city has pushed its way up through the modern one, and the heroes are menaced by an old-fashioned ax gang as their phones are blocked and they struggle to charge one. Of course, sometimes it's more whimsical, as the score suddenly seems to quote Bernard Hermann as Jianming and Huilin dangle in a climax that would make Hitchcock smile, or a spry Zhitian reminds younger assassins that he is both smarter and tougher than they are.

It's a bunch of fun, especially when Zhang has the freedom to let audiences hiss at those in the upper class, whether by money or status, even if one can maybe see where any mention of how Zheng and Li were able to get where they were has been carefully excised (I suspect Joan Chen's wife from an implicitly well-connected family has some material on the cutting room floor). It may not be Zhang's best, and it is possessed of an unusually heavy-handed reminder that crime does not pay at the end, but it's an impressively messy and mean change of pace for someone who often seems to be aiming to play classy art houses outside of China.

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