Savage (Cui Siwei, 2019)

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Cui Siwei’s directorial debut is not, unfortunately, a remake of the classic blaxploitation film Savage (tagline: “On the streets, or in the sheets, he’s. . . SAVAGE!”). Instead, it’s another moody Chinese noir, this one headed by two excellent actors and set in a snowy mountain wilderness. Chang Chen plays a cop who stumbles across escaping gold thieves, led by Liao Fan. The bad guys shoot Chang and kill his partner. Chang suffers angst for a year, which even his friendship/romance with the pretty local doctor cannot cure. Then, he and another partner, in the course of chasing after some poachers hours before the biggest blizzard of the year, run into the very same gang of thieves who have returned for their stash of gold. Everyone shoots everyone with a seemingly endless supply of bullets and cartridges, until all the brilliant whites are stained with blood.

Given that Cui’s last credit was for the screenplay of The Island, a film which played here last year that I thought was quite well-constructed and clever, it’s a bit of a shock that Savage is so shoddy. Action thriller clichés abound: the dead partner, the pretty woman in peril, the double-crosses, the double deadlines of impending storm and the doctor leaving town. There’s a scene where the doctor watches Chang beat the hell out of three men in a restaurant and responds by making out with him, fully clothed, under a running shower. The plot collapses amidst a blizzard of coincidence, and very little in the final half hour or so makes much sense.

Chang and Liao are two of modern cinema’s finest serious face actors, they’re great at being sad and angry at the same time. But those are the only emotions they’re allowed. Still, Cui has a terrific eye, and in some alternate universe this could have been a solid elemental thriller along the lines of Track of the Cat, or at least Shoot to Kill. One stand-off takes place outdoors, in a field of tall grass covered by blinding snow, the score hinting at Morricone without the least bit of subtlety. And yes indeed two men do slide down a mountainside, firing rifles at each other as they go. Near the climax, someone drives a sno-cat into a building for no apparent reason other than it lets Cui backlight snow falling inside a room for the final showdown. But it does look pretty cool.

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Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng, 2018)

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The Northwest Film Forum’s commitment to rethinking the movie release calendar continues this week, and part of last week, with the oddball Wednesday-Tuesday run of Suburban Birds, the feature debut of director Qiu Sheng. That the film should play here at all is somewhat remarkable, contemporary Chinese cinema releases being almost entirely limited to the small runs of pop genre films that we like to highlight here at Seattle Screen Scene. Sure, festival blockbusters like Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night play too, but it’s exceedingly rare that a film by an unknown Chinese director gets an art house release. The film has been well-received at Locarno and the New York’s New Directors/New Films Festival, and has the backing of a solid distributor in Cinema Guild. That is likely because, like Bi Gan, who also had his debut feature released in one the art house circuit, Suburban Birds is heavily influenced by the works of established and well-known East Asian star directors. Audiences familiar with Jia and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang will have no trouble relating to this beautiful, dreamy, yet precise tour through the contradictions of modern China.

Set in an unnamed Chinese city, one of those meticulous and vast urban spaces that has cropped up over the past twenty years, where a surveying crew is attempting to account for the subsidence of various buildings. The new city is literally sinking into the ground. Exploring an abandoned elementary school, one of the crew, Xia Hao, discovers an old diary and the next hour or so of the film is an extended flashback, or dream, of his childhood, complete with title cards for the date and day of the week (but not the year), as if we too are reading the lost diary. There’s little forward momentum here: the middle school kids, almost entirely without adult presence, wander their town, in between forest and construction zones, exploring the city as the old is being demolished to make way for the new. The two timelines, past and future Xia Hao, intersect in minor ways, recalling more the temporal contradictions of Hong Sangsoo’s In Another Country than anything more serious (Bi Gan’s scrambling of time in Kaili Blues, for example). The middle section is less coming of age than slice of life, what plot direction it has is more toward a falling away than growing up, entropic rather than progressive.

Back in the present (or the future), Xia Hao is increasingly convinced that the whole city is resting on a groundwater leak, that its unstable foundations will eventually, possibly quite soon, lead the whole thing to collapse. The metaphor here is not the least bit subtle, but Qiu underplays it, relying on image and landscape and cityscape, captured in crystal clear and brightly colored 1.33 images, to build a mood of societal unease, of inevitable collapse. In this it recalls another recent Chinese film to have been released here (in the US, not Seattle, as far as I can tell), Zhao Liang’s 2015 documentary Behemoth, which ended its exploration of China’s coal industry in a vast, freshly-constructed ghost town, a space of cutting edge modernity that was nonetheless wholly empty of human habitation. The streets of Suburban Birds are similarly empty, we really only see Xia Hao and his companions, past and present, though the sounds of others are omnipresent. Birds chirp constantly in the past, but there’s only construction and traffic in the present, and the drip drip drip of the new city’s impending watery doom.