'The Looming Storm': Film Review | Tokyo 2017

THE LOOMING STORM  Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
A stylish, slow-moving murder mystery.

A security guard plays detective with dire results in Dong Yue’s atmospheric psychological film noir.

The Looming Storm, the first feature by cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Dong Yue, conveys above all a sense of dashed hopes. Men in dark-gray mackintoshes under an endless downpour typify this Chinese film noir, whose glum atmosphere echoes a disintegrating social situation. The poorest sectors of society falter as the country modernizes and shrugs off its old and unproductive elements. China’s competition entry in this year’s Tokyo Film Festival is a think piece, thinly disguised as a murder mystery. Though far too long at nearly two hours, its stylish look lends it a certain fascination while the story heralds a new filmmaker ready to tackle sensitive issues. 

Most of the action is set in 1997, a crucial year for China that saw the death of leader Deng Xiaoping and the Handover of Hong Kong, which returned it to Chinese sovereignty. It was also the year that Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin began divesting the country of its debt-ridden state-owned enterprises. In one of these doomed dinosaurs, a sprawling old factory in the middle of nowhere, Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong) runs a modest security department with his doltish assistant Xiao Liu (Zheng Wei). His success at catching a handful of thieving employees earns him the Model Worker of the Year award and a chance to prattle optimism to a captive audience of factory hands.

But the film actually begins in 2008, a year of natural disasters in China, when Guowei is released from prison. So this is not a whodunnit or even a howdunnit, but a story that slowly reveals why its self-important hero spent 10 years behind bars. The very first scene leaves no doubt that the director intends for everything to be read on a broader scale: Asked to spell his name for prison records, Guowei replies it is “yu” for unnecessary remnants, “guo” for nation and “wei” for “glorious.” He is indeed one of the expendable leftovers of a glorious nation, a cast-off like millions of others. Depicting this is an ambitious agenda for a first feature and, like his hero, Duan’s ambitions tend to exceed what he can actually achieve.

We meet Guowei, as genre conventions demand, at the scene of a woman’s gruesome murder. It is the fourth killing with the same MO and old Chief Zhang (a well-traveled and exhausted Du Yuan) surmises it's the same murderer. Guowei has been summoned to see if anyone missed work at the factory. This opens a hornet’s nest of aspirations on Guowei’s part to leave his job in factory security for a police appointment. But he finds few clues when he drags his reluctant sidekick Xiao Liu to the crime scene, nor does a hooker he talks to at the Workers Stadium help him ID a likely suspect. Eventually, Guowei believes he is on the trail of the murderer and chases a hooded figure up and down ladders at the factory and then through a railroad yard. He is so caught up in playing detective that he barely notices how Xiao Liu has taken a nasty fall.

Guowei meets a pretty prostitute, Yanzi (Jiang Yiyun), who develops some affection for him after he installs her in a beauty parlor in the Hong Kong section of town (she asks him poignantly whether he thinks it will one day be possible to travel freely to HK). However, she doesn’t turn this murder-obsessed asexual into a romantic. On the contrary, Guowei embarks on a program of spying on her which ends badly. In the end, he finds reality falling apart around him and the viewer realizes Guowei (and the director) are very unreliable narrators, a fact that puts most of the film into question. It’s an interesting twist, but perhaps too advanced for a first-time filmmaker. The final scenes have a hurried, unsettled quality that leaves the audience wondering what really happened.   

With its overcast skies and industrial pipes sticking surreally out of the rural landscape, Cai Tao’s cinematography conveys a sweeping sense of space that is visually quite entrancing, even if it emphasizes brackish, rain-soaked grays that seriously dampen the quality of life. Even the colors are a metaphor, of course, that grow to feel over-used.
Production company: Century Pictures
Cast: Duan Yihong, Jiang Yiyan, Du Yuan, Zheng Wei
Director: Dong Yue
Producer: Xiao Qiancao
Executive producer: Luo Yan
Director of photography: Cai Tao
Production and costume designer: Liu Qiang
Editor: Wen Jing
Casting director: Wang Chengxu
World sales: Century Pictures
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (competition)

116 minutes