'Vortex': Film Review | Shanghai 2019

Courtesy of the Shanghai Film Festival
Soft-sell noir.

Dong Chengpeng plays a mechanic who gets involved in a kidnapping in Jacky Gan’s Chinese crime thriller with a human face, which bowed in the Shanghai film festival's competition.

There’s little that’s new in Vortex, a nicely made thriller that’s soft on the action, but with flawed characters you can believe in and hope will survive their foot and car chases pursued by similarly humanized desperadoes. The action centers around actor Dong Chengpeng (aka the multitalented Da Peng), who plays a basically honest garage owner with a bad gambling habit, which leads to his involvement in a messy kidnapping.

Directed by Jacky Gan (aka Gan Jianyu, director of the Hong Kong film Some Time Native), Vortex insists that people are not just black and white but smatterings of both, and that they are made honest or dishonest according to their circumstances. Though it lacks the melancholy fascination of top-tier Chinese noirs and the stylized thrills of Hong Kong actioners, this Fortissimo release forges its own middle road and could attract niche patrons as well as festival interest. It world-premiered in the Shanghai International Film Festival's competition.

Ne’er-do-well Liu Xiaojun (Dong) is introduced in his grimy garage, begging his flashy pal Lao Wan for a big loan. He needs $15,000 to pay off his gambling debt pronto, or he’s a goner. Lao uses the opportunity to insist he help him steal a car, switch the engine and repaint it. Ten hot cars would repay his debt.

The mechanic also gets money out of upright old-school detective Wang, the former partner of his policeman father who died in action. Xiaojun blames Wang for Dad’s death, and Wang feels guilty enough to give him his spare cash. Cut to a poker game, where our hero immediately loses the whole stash.

Between his burning gambler’s eyes and the big chip on his shoulder, Xiaojun is not a sympathetic character as the curtain rises. Nor are the Xia brothers, a ruthless pair of thugs who have masterminded the abduction of a five-year-old girl, Qiqi. There is a veil of confusion around the child, who turns up on cue in the trunk of a stolen car. At first it seems that her mother is the attractive Zhang Qian (Li Meng) whose job is entertaining nightclub clients and who seems desperate to get her hands on money. The intricacies of her involvement in the kidnapping and ransom get unraveled by and by, along with her own deeper motivations.

The setup is long-winded and the first hint of excitement occurs late in the day, when Xiaojun nervously attempts to steal the car Lao Wan has picked out for him. He unexpectedly finds himself surrounded by the Xia brothers, and barely manages to drive away through a rain of bullets.

While Wang and his police team ineffectually search for the stolen car, which is right under their noses, Xiaojun doctors it up in his garage. He also tries to offload little Xixi, who is cloyingly cute to a fault, but obviously a huge complication. His good intentions are put on hold when her mother calls on a cellphone in the car, asking where she should drop off the $300,000 ransom.

For Xiaojun all that money is manna from heaven, and he brings Lao Wan into the game with a plan to grab it. But for the two brothers in crime, it’s serious business and they are ready to kill anyone who gets in their way. Though they're heavies, Gan is careful to give them reasons for acting as ruthlessly as they do: their father was shortchanged by life; only the wealthy are treated like human beings; this is their last caper before they retire (famous last words). The only really touching thing about them is their loyalty to each other, which appears absolute. 

The screenplay echoes familiar genre conventions, but there’s a lot of tedious business about cellphones, GPS tracking and stun guns that most action films would have glossed over. The set pieces, when they arrive, offer some tense moments, particularly a protracted chase on foot up and down staircases in an oddly deserted part of the city, and the final desperate struggle on the riverbank between Xiaojun and Xia Xi (Ou Hao) for revenge, money and the abducted girl.

Cheng Ma Zhiyuan, who was also the DP on last year’s missing daughter drama Lost, Found, gives the proceedings a stylish look with plenty of good handheld camerawork. As the indestructible Xiaojun, Chengpeng creates a well-rounded protagonist whose unprepossessing exterior and lack of heroics are turned around by the end.

Production companies: Black Ant Film, Hehe Pictures Corp.
Cast: Dong Chengpeng, Ou Hao, Li Meng, Cao Bingkun, Zhang Ningjiang, Cao Weiyu, Li Shengye, Xia En, Sha Baoliang 
Director: Jacky Gan
Screenwriters: Li Meng, Yi Hui
Executive producer: Cao Baoping
Director of photography: Cheng Ma Zhiyuan  
Production designer: Tu Nan
Editor: Kwong Chi-leung
Music: Lee Jong Soo
Venue: Shanghai International Film and TV Festival (competition)
Sales: Fortissimo

100 minutes