Full River Red (2023)

At nearly 160 mins, Zhang’s latest does overstay its welcome, but as a murky murder mystery with twists and turns, it is finely executed and entertaining. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,588

Dir. Zhang Yimou
2023 | China | Drama/Comedy/Mystery | 159 min | 2.39:1 | Mandarin
NC16 (passed clean) for violence

Cast: Shen Teng, Jackson Yee, Zhang Yi Lei Jiayin Yue Yunpeng
Plot: A pawn tries to get rid of a traitorous minister, Qin Hui, when he leads an army to the border for talks with a Jurchen mission.
International Sales: Edko FIlms

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Betrayal & Deceit; Loyalty to Country
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Mainstream

Viewed: In Theatres – Golden Village Suntec
Spoilers: No

Many critics have labelled Zhang Yimou’s film as ‘Knives Out’ in ancient China, which is not untrue.  With more twists and turns than the two ‘Knives Out’ movies combined, Full River Red is currently the biggest box-office success of the director’s career. 

It is certainly a crowd-pleaser yet Zhang also crafts arguably his most elaborate film to date (one that he also co-wrote). Someone is killed, no doubt a political crime, but no one knows who the murderer is. 

So, Zhang Da (Shen Teng in a lively role), a lowly soldier under the threat of execution, is forced to investigate for the authorities who want answers before the sun comes out. 

About ¾ of the film is set in the dead of the night within the four walls of a large compound with multiple alleys, with Zhang’s regular DP Zhao Xiaoding giving us shots that convey some kind of nocturnal mystique. 

“All of the people involved want to have a safety net.”

This mood, by turns serene and suspenseful, is punctuated by loud, modern Chinese rap that accompanies the characters when they make ‘transitory struts’ from one location to another.  It is an interesting creative decision though it felt jarring to me. 

A murky murder mystery that is inspired by Yue Fei’s legendary patriotic poem, Full River Red is set after his execution as the traitorous minister Qin Hui seeks to prolong his own selfish interests. 

Zhang’s film may be a work of fiction, one that is finely executed and will entertain mainstream audiences, but there is a kind of strong flag-waving in its storytelling, particularly towards its finale. 

His detractors would of course find it too propagandistic.   But really, despite being a tad overlong, Full River Red manages to find a good balance between being outrightly funny and soberingly nationalistic. 

Grade: B


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