Blood gushes, heads roll, revelers dance and motorcycles roar in “Bacurau” and “The Wild Goose Lake,” two sensationally entertaining action thrillers that hail from two different countries — Brazil and China, respectively — but whose truer provenance might as well be called Planet Genre. Arriving nearly a year after they first screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, they are superior examples of art-house pulp, intricately staged and shot through with rich veins of unease; you’d be hard pressed to find two more brazenly stylish exercises in bang-bang-vroom-vroom.
The differences admittedly outstrip the similarities, which is a testament to the films’ distinctness of vision, purpose, style. It also points to the eclecticism of their influences. If “Bacurau” is like a futuristic Sergio Leone western by way of a John Carpenter freakout, then “The Wild Goose Lake” suggests a James M. Cain noir drenched in Johnnie To rain and Wong Kar-wai neon. Each movie draws its title and much of its power from a specific place, where kinetic thrills and social ills are profoundly linked, and the fallout from a single fired bullet affects not one but many.
That primacy of place has long been central to the work of the Brazilian auteur Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose superb first two features, “Neighboring Sounds” (2012) and “Aquarius” (2016), found suspense, intrigue and metaphoric resonance in the comings and goings at apartment complexes in the coastal city of Recife. His fantastically amped-up new movie, “Bacurau,” set in the vast backcountry known as the sertão, mounts its own barbed critique of violent oppression and class struggle, in Brazil and elsewhere. But compared with its predecessors, it’s broader in scope and crazier in its ambitions — an expansiveness signaled by the fact that Mendonça Filho shares writing and directing duties with his invaluable production designer, Juliano Dornelles.
Their focus is a small, close-knit town that doesn’t exist in real life and may not exist for much longer even in its own gonzo fiction. The sprawling, winding story begins with intimations of death and tragedy: Empty coffins line the dirt road that leads to Bacurau, where a young woman, Teresa (Bárbara Colen), has come to attend her beloved grandmother’s funeral. Teresa is our point of entry; when someone pops a mysterious pill into her mouth, it’s the movie’s way of urging us to sit back and enjoy the trip. But she crucially never becomes the protagonist in a story of fiercely democratic sensibilities, in which the residents of this remote community must unite to overthrow a deadly threat.
The nature of that threat — let’s just say it involves recreational gun violence, UFO-styled drone cameras and Udo Kier — may sound on paper like “The Hunt,” the politically barbed action-satire that, due to a much-publicized delay, is also hitting theaters this week. But despite its liberal borrowings from classic westerns, horror-thrillers and action movies (there’s even a Wilhelm scream), “Bacurau” is too weird, too jagged and too formally delirious — keep your ears open for a jolt of Carpenter’s electrifying “Night” — to bear much resemblance to the standard Hollywood shoot-’em-up.
The attacks on Bacurau begin slowly and ominously: The town suddenly vanishes off Google Maps. Cell-phone signals are mysteriously jammed. A giant truck bearing a precious load of water is riddled with bullets. And that’s all before the corpses begin to pile up, in viciously art-directed arrangements of torn flesh. We spend a little time getting to know the killers, all moral imbeciles with big guns and deep pockets (“I came for the body count!” one of them yells, inadvertently speaking for the audience). But Mendonça Filho and Dornelles are more interested in acquainting us with the targeted townspeople, immersing us in their particular way of life before it devolves into a way of death.
We spend a lot of time rattling along in cars and on motorbikes, getting to know this rugged landscape, where dusty roads run alongside incongruous patches of greenery. There are nocturnal gatherings and daytime funeral processions, aging matriarchs and sweet-faced children, shops and food stands and a church and a museum. The filmmakers don’t spell out the history of this town, but you can see some of that history in its diversity of faces, in the fractious relationships that are ultimately set aside for the greater and inevitably bloody good.
The resulting genre stew is rich and flavorsome, if also somewhat chunky and uneven. The characters are thinly drawn by design, but Mendonça Filho and Dornelles know how to use the magnetism of their actors to maximum advantage. Thomas Aquino, an actor with slow-burning charisma and Laurence Fishburne eyes, settles nicely into the movie’s leading-man role as well as Teresa’s bed. Best in show is the Brazilian legend Sônia Braga, who plays a doctor with a tongue of acid and a spine of steel. Here, as she did in Mendonça Filho’s “Aquarius,” Braga proves there’s more than one way to turn the tables.
Beautiful faces, grisly outcomes and moments of pure exhilaration can also be found in “The Wild Goose Lake,” even if this ecstatically seedy manhunt thriller, from the rising Chinese director Diao Yinan, feels like a comparatively downbeat affair. A darker, more humid one too: It takes place under what feels like perpetual night in the city of Wuhan. We first see a gang leader on the run, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), having a cryptic meeting at a rain-soaked train station with a woman, Liu Ai’ai (Gwei Lun-mei), all secrecy and cigarette smoke. The circumstances that brought them together are revealed in a series of flashbacks that kick the movie into high gear, starting with an astonishingly choreographed brawl that breaks out in a den of thieves.
One mass motorcycle-stealing spree and a few grisly killings later, Zenong is a fugitive, wounded and hiding from plain-clothes police officers, as well as from rival gang members who want him dead. His many pursuers eventually track him to the Wild Goose Lake, which is where the resourceful Ai’ai, one of the many “bathing beauties” who work this seamy, crime-ridden vacation spot, enters the picture. She is tasked with tracking down Zenong’s estranged wife, Shujun (Wan Qian), whom he wants to receive the large sum of reward money being offered for his capture.
That’s already more plot than you need to know, let alone keep track of. Absorbing as the movie is, there is something almost knowingly perfunctory about its complex tangle of grudges and alliances. A certain narrative opacity also marked Diao’s previous picture, “Black Coal, Thin Ice” (2014), an intimate chiller about a string of grisly unsolved murders in a wintry town. Although two of that film’s excellent stars return here — Gwei and Liao Fan as a police detective — “The Wild Goose Lake” is even less fixated on the murky particulars of who’s deceiving and double-crossing whom. Intentionally or not, its title offers the viewer a clue as to how to process its narrative: as an elaborate piece of misdirection.
Instead it glides from one fiendishly clever set-piece to another, powered by a tank of pure unleaded atmosphere. (It’s not just neo-noir; it’s neon-noir, given all the hard hot-pink light flooding Dong Jinsong’s shadowy images.) Like a more showily virtuosic version of his countryman Jia Zhangke (who worked with Liao in his own recent gangster thriller “Ash Is Purest White”), Diao uses the conventions of genre to illuminate a world where crime, corruption, rapid social flux and soul-crushing inequality are inextricably intertwined. Fateful encounters take place in dimly lit hotel basements and cavernous factories; one nerve-racking pursuit plays out in and around a nearly empty restaurant, where a hot bowl of noodles offers a brief, if ultimately futile, respite from the chase.
What matters more here is the air of doomy romanticism that settles like a shroud over Zenong and Ai’ai, tenuously connecting them on a gangland chess board whose pieces never stop moving. The Variety critic Jessica Kiang rightly likened Zenong to a character played by the great Robert Mitchum, known for his fatalistic noir antiheroes. And indeed Hu has some of Mitchum’s imperturbable, dreamy-eyed cool, plus a grit and grace all his own: Whether wrapping bandages around his bloodied torso or stuffing his face with noodles, he moves through these gorgeous world of color and shadow knowing that none of it can end well for him. His resignation is our pleasure.
(Portuguese with English subtitles and English)
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles
(Mandarin with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Downtown; Laemmle Glendale; Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; and Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena