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Review. Laughter and corpses pile up in Chinese blockbuster ‘Full River Red’

The knives are out and then some in “Full River Red,” a darkly entertaining exercise in twist-twist-stab-stab from Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Set on a long, dark and increasingly bloody night in a Song dynasty military stronghold, this 12th-century comic mystery opens with a touch of “Macbeth”: a visiting leader is found murdered in his bed, suspicion immediately falls over the guards, before peeling back layer after layer of Agatha Christie-esque puzzle-box intrigue. But Zhang’s authorial touch is unmistakable in the labyrinthine palace intrigues, phalanxes of armed soldiers and ferocious bursts of action, plus the climactic nationalist overtones of a story pitting the will of several individuals against the fate of an empire.

That fate hangs in the balance throughout the film, which takes place during a détente between the rival Song and Jin dynasties, and begins 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 triggers executions among the soldiers tasked with protecting him. One who survives, apparently by sheer luck, is a bumbling comedian named Zhang Da (the comedian Shen Teng), who somehow becomes the story’s reluctant detective: ordered to find out who the perpetrator was before dawn, what which basically gives her only two hours before him too. , he will face the possibility of execution.

Running a hefty, not entirely accountable 157 minutes, “Full River Red” takes place in near real time. We are with Zhang Da throughout most of the time as he and a stern deputy commander, Sun Jun (Jackson Yee, an incredibly effective foil), question those who were among the last to see the diplomat alive, including a night watchman and a group of female cheerleaders. Chief among the latter is the evocatively named zither (Wang Jiayi, very good), a beautiful dancer who turns out to be as formidable a foe 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 with blood; even by classic detective story standards, Zhang Yimou and Chen Yu’s intricate script boasts a heavy body count. Accusations are hurled left and right, throats are slashed and pierced, and there is much talk of a jeweled dagger with a retractable blade. An anachronism? Maybe. (The hints of punk and electronica in Han Hong’s folk-derived score are an even bolder departure from the strict authenticity of the period.) weapons and countless shrewd investments.

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

(Niu Vision Media)

The director’s devotees may sometimes be reminded of his superbly elaborate 2002 martial arts drama “Hero,” which also turned his characters into living chess pieces in a plot to challenge the imperial powers. However, the similarities are more thematic and structural than stylistic. Unlike “Hero,” with its retina-tickling pops of color, “Full River Red,” while as impeccably staged as all of Zhang’s work, has a more functional and inelegant look. Until dawn breaks in the film’s hectic final stretch, the darkness-cloaking cinematography (by Zhao Xiaoding) bathes everyone in subdued, somber blues, offset only by the occasional bar of red. (At times he leans toward the monochrome intensity of “Shadow,” a stylish highlight of the director’s recent filmography.)

The monotony is not purely visual. Despite its whiplashes of violence and hints of humor — mostly courtesy of Teng’s Zhang Da, whose often goofy and impulsive behavior doubles as a red herring — the film deliberately induces a kind of claustrophobia, a sense of entrapment. That’s appropriate enough; You’re supposed to feel the noose tighten around each character’s neck, though sometimes the tension slackens and the story threatens to collapse under the weight of its many convolutions. The pace is modulated by occasional energetic interstitial shots of the characters running from one part of the fortress to another, sometimes filming them from above, allowing us to visualize them making their way through a physical and psychological maze.

What lies at the heart of the maze is best not divulged too explicitly here, though it may explain why the film has become a box office success (it has grossed over $600 million at home) and the biggest commercial success for the prolific Zhang’s film, alternatively. haunted and beleaguered career. “Full River Red” is the title of a famous poem, lament, and war cry (“There we will feast on barbarian meat”), believed to have been written by Song dynasty general Yue Fei. , which almost everyone in China is said to know by heart. That adds more than a touch of jingoism to this hilarious mechanical parlor trick, generating a rush of excitement that can make your heart sink or soar.

‘Full River Red’

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Not qualified

Execution time: 2 hours, 37 minutes

Playing: Starts March 17 in general release