Review: The laughs and the corpses pile up in the Chinese blockbuster ‘Full River Red’

Shen Teng and Jackson Yee in the movie "Full River Red."
(Niu Vision Media)

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

That fate hangs in the balance throughout the movie, which takes place during a detente between the rival Song and Jin dynasties, and which opens in the middle of the night with a whirlwind of violence. The victim is a Jin diplomat who’s come to negotiate with the Song prime minister, Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin), and whose demise immediately triggers executions among the soldiers who were tasked with protecting him. One who survives, seemingly through dumb luck, is a comic bumbler named Zhang Da (comedian Shen Teng), who somehow becomes the story’s reluctant sleuth: He’s ordered to figure out whodunit by dawn, which basically gives him just two hours before he, too, will face the possibility of execution.

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“Full River Red,” which runs a hefty, not entirely justified 157 minutes, thus plays out in something close to real time. We are with Zhang Da at nearly every moment as he and a stern deputy commander, Sun Jun (Jackson Yee, a growlingly effective foil), question those who were among the last to see the diplomat alive, including a night watchman and a group of female entertainers. 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).

Nearly all the interrogations end badly and bloodily; even by the standards of the classical detective story, Zhang Yimou and Chen Yu’s convoluted script boasts a hell of a body count. Accusations are hurled right and left, throats are slit and punctured, and much is made of a jeweled dagger with a retractable blade. An anachronism? Maybe. (The touches of punk and electronica in Han Hong’s folk-derived score are an even bolder departure from strict period authenticity.) But if so, it’s hardly the only contrivance in a story that teems with hidden identities, secret allegiances, incriminating documents, unexpected weapons and innumerable sly reversals.

Zhang Yi and Wang Jiayi in the movie "Full River Red."
(Niu Vision Media)

The director’s devotees may be reminded at times of his gorgeous and elaborate 2002 martial-arts drama, “Hero,” which also turned its characters into living chess pieces in a plot to challenge the imperial powers that be. The similarities, though, are more thematic and structural than stylistic. Unlike “Hero,” with its retina-tickling bursts of color, “Full River Red,” while as impeccably mounted as all of Zhang’s work, has a more functional, inelegant look. Until day breaks in the movie’s eventful closing stretch, the cover-of-darkness cinematography (by Zhao Xiaoding) bathes everyone in dim, shadowy blues, offset only by the occasional slash of red. (At times it tilts toward the monochrome intensity of “Shadow,” a stylish high point of the director’s recent filmography.)

The monotony isn’t purely visual. Despite its lashings of violence and smatterings of humor — mostly courtesy of Teng’s Zhang Da, whose often foolish, impulsive behavior doubles as a bit of a red herring — the movie willfully induces a kind of claustrophobia, a sense of entrapment. That’s fitting enough; you’re meant to feel the noose tighten around each character’s neck in turn, though sometimes the tension slackens and the story threatens to collapse under the weight of its many convolutions. The rhythm is modulated by occasional, energetic interstitial shots of the characters racing from one part of the fortress to another, sometimes filming them from overhead, allowing us to visualize them making their way through a physical and psychological labyrinth.

What lies at the heart of the labyrinth is best not divulged too explicitly here, though it may account for why the movie has become a box office smash (it’s grossed more than $600 million at home) and the biggest commercial success of Zhang’s prolific, alternately charmed and embattled career. “Full River Red” is the title of a famous poem — a lament and a war cry (“There we shall feast on barbarian flesh”), believed to have been written by the Song Dynasty general Yue Fei — that nearly everyone in China is said to know by heart. That lends more than a touch of jingoism to this otherwise amusing, mechanistic parlor trick, which builds to a surge of emotion that might make your heart sink or soar.


‘Full River Red’

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes

Playing: Starts March 17 in general release