The Looming Storm ( Bao xue jiang zhi)


Rainy days and murders always get me down

(2017) Thriller (Century Fortune) Yihong Duan, Yiyan Jiang, Yuan  Du, Chuyi Zheng, Wei Zheng, Lin Zhang, Xianliong Li, Yan Qu, Yujie Su, Chao Sun, Chaofun Fu, Shuo Du, Gi Song, Shaodong Jiang, Qiao Cho. Directed by Yue Dong

1997 was a red letter year for China, no pun intended. It was the year Den Xiaoping, then the president, passed away and a more reform-oriented government went into effect. It was of course also the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control after having been in the purview of the United Kingdom for a century.

In that year Yu Guowei (Duan) was the security chief in Smelting Plant #4 in an industrial town in rural China. He has just been given the model employee award for going a year without allowing any petty theft in the plant. Respected by management, liked by his fellow employees, Yu fancies himself something of a detective and when a trio of women turn up murdered in town, he is eager to help the weary Captain Zhang (Du) who doesn’t want Yu’s help at all.

But Yu sees himself as a superior police officer to Zhang and the contemptuous Officer Li (C. Zheng) and believes that solving this case will win him a spot on an actual police force. With his fawning assistant Xiao Lu (W. Zheng) – who insists on referring to his box as “Maestro” – at his side, Yu makes like Sam Spade and looks for the usual suspects or at least the unusual ones. Based on his own instincts – which aren’t that bad – he starts looking for someone taking an unusual interest in female factory workers.

He finds one in a hooded man who has is apparently keeping an eye on the various factories in town. After a foot chase with the hooded man ends badly, Yu resolves to take down his prey and uses former prostitute Yanzi (Jiang) as bait. He sets up the girl, whose aim in life is to open up a salon in Hong Kong, with a salon in the center of town. This despite the fact that Yu, along with almost all of the smelting factory’s workforce has been laid off; the State is getting ready to close the factory as part of China’s modernization and move towards globalization. Yanzi is genuinely very grateful but doesn’t understand why Yu refuses physical affection. There is a palpable air of something tragic building and when the climax finally unfolds, it’s not what we would expect – but tragic nonetheless.

Dong sets the film in an unnamed town in the middle of muddy moors in a place where the sun never ever shines and it rains almost non-stop. This gives the film a noir-ish feel and while there are other elements of noir as well, this isn’t strictly that kind of film. There is a good deal of social commentary going on in the subtle way that Chinese filmmakers insert commentary into their movies.

Duan has the perfect hangdog look that belies his eager beaver attitude although once it becomes evident that he isn’t as good a detective as he thinks he is and his world begins to fall apart the expression becomes a source of pathos. Likewise, Jiang is bright and lively, an absolute refreshing respite from the overwhelming oppressive atmosphere of the film – although that atmosphere is part of what sets this movie apart. This is truly a place where nothing good ever happens and it is evident in the way the residents trudge through the muddy streets, not even bothering to protect themselves from the rain any longer. China is changing and these are the people getting left behind. Like Yu, they all have the certainty in mind that life is nothing but a perpetual disappointment and is something that is to be endured rather than enjoyed. That’s not as rare a mindset as I think we’d all like.

The movie is a little long (nearly two hours) and the ending very drawn out but for all that the pacing, while slow, isn’t necessarily a drawback; I remained enthralled by the story all the way through. This was another of the standout films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival; it might be a bit dreary in tone but it won’t leave you feeling waterlogged.

REASONS TO GO: While the pace is slow the story is so fascinating you never lose interest. Yihong Duan has the perfect hangdog look. The dreary setting fits the mood perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending drags on a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yue Dong has been a cinematographer for most of his career; this is his first foray into directing a full-length feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Microhabitat

Mystery Men


Skull bowling has never really taken off as a recreational sport.

Skull bowling has never really taken off as a recreational sport.

(1999) Superhero (Universal) Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Kel Mitchell, Greg Kinnear, Wes Studi, Lena Olin, Eddie Izzard, Artie Lange, Prakazrel Michel, Claire Forlani, Tom Waits, Emmy Laybourne . Directed by Kinka Usher

If you have had enough of brooding Dark Knights, angsty-but-noble Spider-Men or of Too-Good-To-Be-True Men of Steel, here are the other guys, the kinds of heroes that would probably show up to save OUR day.

Mr. Furious (Stiller), known for his legendary rages, leads a trio of what local cops contemptuously call wannabes, rounded out by the Shoveller (Macy), the straight man who says modestly “we just fight crime…call it what you will” and the obtuse Blue Raja (Azaria), who speaks in a phony British accent and has not a speck of the color blue in his costume. He throws silverware with uncanny accuracy, although he has trouble flinging knives which is one the things that makes Mr. Furious so hopped-up mad.

When this trio of do-gooders attempt to save an old-folks home from robbery, they wind up having the crap kicked out of them only to be rescued by Captain Amazing (Kinnear), Champion City’s legitimate superhero. It seems Amazing has done his work too well, and there are no real battles left for him to fight. So when his arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Rush) is released from the asylum, Amazing hopes for the kind of apocalyptic battle that will bring the Captain’s sinking stock back to the fore. So when Amazing is captured by his mortal enemy, there’s nobody left to save the day except…you guessed it.

Realizing they are woefully overmatched, they try to recruit some additional firepower (which leads to the Superhero Audition, one of the best scenes in the movie). They wind up with the Spleen (Reubens), whose incapacitating gasses are best left undescribed, the Invisible Kid (Kel Mitchell) who can only turn invisible when nobody’s watching, the Sphinx (Studi) who utters semi-mystical phrases of meaningless babble (sample; “If you do not master your rage, your rage will master you”) and the Bowler (Garofalo), who keeps her father’s skull in her bowling ball and carries on conversations with her departed dad that blur the line between neurotic and psychotic but settle into a kind of Jewish angst.

The odds are against them as they find themselves some weapons (which mainly don’t work) and get themselves some snazzy new costumes which do. However, with their backs to the wall they still refuse to walk away, knowing that this fight could very well be their last.

Usher tries way too hard to turn this into a roller coaster ride of comedy and action, winding up with something that tain’t one thing nor t’other. There are car chases and fight scenes, but mostly played with a wink. The set design is memorable, sort of a cross between Gotham City and the overlooked sci-fi flick Dark City. There are a lot of terrific running jokes; only Mr. Furious seems to notice the remarkable resemblance between Captain Amazing and his alter ego, for example. Note the corporate sponsorships on the uniform of Captain Amazing, for another – sort of like a European soccer uniform or a NASCAR suit.

This is definite eye candy, highly entertaining eye candy at that. The action sequences aren’t half bad although they are played with a definite wink.  The cast is formidable, with some of the most underrated talents in Hollywood. Superhero parodies have not traditionally sold well in the comic book store, and this one certain didn’t bust down the box office bank. Still, if you want to get away from the usual suspects of Marvel and DC superheroes, here is the kind of movie that will keep the parents entertained without having their kids squirming in their seats.

WHY RENT THIS: Magnificent eye candy. An alternative from the usual superhero fare. Some fine performances, particularly from Macy, Stiller, Kinnear, Studi and Garofalo.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Comedy and action sequences sometimes clash. A little neurotic in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some rather crude jokes and a bit of comic book violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The comic book from which this originated was began as a spin-off from the Flaming Carrot comic books but only Mr. Furious, the Spleen and the Shoveller made it from the book to the film (the Bowler, Invisible Kid and Blue Raja are all new characters developed for the film). The Sphynx is a Golden Age character in the public domain and Captain Amazing is a substitute for the Flaming Carrot whom producers thought was too bizarre a character for a mainstream Hollywood film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the origin of the comic book series and a couple of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.5M on a $68M production budget; the movie was an unqualified flop.

STATION WAGON LOVERS: The Shoveller’s car is an early AMC Rebel.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: This is 40