Friday, May 3, 2019

Savage: Snowy Noir from China

Ironically, precious metal deposits are often more of a curse than a blessing to regional economies. The gold mine certainly does not look like it is doing much for the hardscrabble population living around Mt. Baekdu, near the North Korean border, but it is the catalyst for all kinds of trouble when a ruthless gang pulls off a big bullion heist. A cop with a grudge will confront them amid a dire blizzard, because the weather never cooperates in hardboiled thrillers like Cui Siwei’s Savage, which opens today in New York.

Wang Kanghao and Han Xiaosong were competing for the affections of Dr. Sun Yan at her birthday party, but Wang gets the field all to himself when Han is killed during a chance encounter with Damao’s gang. Alas, the death of his partner sours Wang on romance. Now his heart only yearns for payback, but he will get his chance when their paths cross during what Wang initially assumes to be a routine poaching investigation. Of course, to further complicate matters, Dr. Sun is waiting for Wang at the closest comfort shelter (and in harm’s way), so she can say goodbye before returning to Beijing.

Early in the film, Cui lifts a scene straight out of the original Lethal Weapon. He also cannibalizes outdoorsy thrillers like Shoot to Kill and Cliffhanger, but at least he borrows from good movies. In fact, he assembles all the homages and conventions into a super-slick and compulsively watchable film.

Nobody really digs too deeply into their emotional reservoirs in this one, but it must be stipulated Chang Chen broods like nobody’s business as Wang. Likewise, Liao Fan is steely as all get-out as the stone cold relentless Damao. In contrast, Zhang Yicong sets off viewers’ spider senses with his outrageously villainous portrayal of Damao’s hipster-feurdai brother, Ermao. However, Ni Ni takes the honors for the film’s subtlest and most complex performance as Sun.

Cinematographer Du Jie captures the scope and forbidding grandeur of the Baekdu region, giving the film a vivid (and chilly) sense of place. It is easy to see why Savage secured North American distribution while a thematically similar but less engaging film like The Blood Hound has not—at least, not yet. Savage is indeed successful as a work of accessible popular noir. Recommended without reservation for mainstream thriller fans, Savage opens today (5/3) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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