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Saving Mr. Wu
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by Jay Seaver

"Mostly-good thriller about mostly-true crime."
4 stars

It's often said, by those longing for a past golden age, that the movies were better decades ago when filmmakers had to deal with restrictions, whether imposed by the industry or communities - from pressure, the argument goes, diamonds are formed. There's some merit to this line of thinking, but watching it being applied in China can be a bit disheartening, as the Hong Kong filmmakers with a great legacy of gritty, uncompromising crime stories must deal with a government edict that Crime Does Not Pay to get access to that billion-person mainland audience. If "Saving Mr. Wu" weren't based upon actual events, it would probably be frustrating to watch, because it often seems to be built around dealing with a foregone conclusion as much as telling the story in the most exciting way possible.

Mr. Wu (Andy Lau), in this case, is an actor from Hong Kong in Beijing to sign a contract to appear in a new movie. He's exiting a club when a man flashing a badge tells him that his car was involved in a hit-and-run, and would he please come down to the station to clear it up? Things get a little rough, and it's soon clear that this guy is no cop. Some days later, this Zhang Hua (Wang Qianyuan) is in a police station, restrained as investigators Xing (Liu Ye) and Cao (Wu Ruofu) interrogate him. They note that Hua is watching the clock, meaning his confederates probably have orders to kill Wu and another hostage, Xiao Dou (Cai Lu), if he has not contacted them by a certain time.

There are a number of reasons why writer/director Ding Sheng (an up-and-comer known for some of Jackie Chan's more notable recent films) might decide to present his story in non-linear fashion; for one thing, it keeps both Wu and the detectives in the film as constant presences, rather than having Xing and Cao push him to the background later on. Hua's capture by the police being inevitable, just part of the rules of the genre as far as Chinese cinema is concerned, probably figures into it at some level, though - if the audience knows something is going to happen, do it quick, so that the audience can spend some time wondering how things got from A to B and hopefully having the suspense from both tracks add up when one finally catches up with the other. Ding does okay by that, although what gets said in the interrogation room does make the road to it a bit less exciting on occasion, though the uncertainty about how things are lining up does give the finale a bit more pop.

Of course, the Chinese audience more in tune with their entertainment business and the stories that go with it will get the benefit of one of the more impressively self-referential jokes a film like this can have, as Hua tells one of the cops that they thought they'd grabbed Andy Lau at first. Nobody should have any complaints about the job Andy Lau does with the part. In his hands, Wu is an approachable celebrity rather than the egotist he might be in other movies; he can talk about rich-person issues like doing business in both Hong Kong and China without seeming disconnected. Lau spends most of the movie balancing this guy's natural terror with a brain that's constantly working - he is an army veteran who works at making a good impression as an actor, after all, so he's going to try and use those qualities to try and find a way out of this situation - but does some of his best work as things come to a head, showing a ton of raw emotion without many words.

For as great and well-known as Lau is, Wang Qianyuan may be the actual star of the show, though, if only for being the guy who is a constant as the film jumps back and forth in time early on. Zhang Hua is a monster, likely as dangerous to his fellow crooks as he is to his victims, and Wang builds the guy up as utterly amoral without actually having to act that way in an overt fashion. His weathered face and ready response to whatever happens marks him as working-class but too independent to take orders from anyone else, and while there's a bit of a sneer to how he speaks with anybody who might consider themselves above him, it's free enough from mustache-twirling that the casual way he carries a grenade or tosses guns around gives a little jolt each time - he's smart and meticulous enough that the moments where clearly doesn't give a damn are shocking.

With those two anchoring a very capable cast, Ding builds a pretty capable crime story. Saving Mr. Wu is procedural as opposed to being built around its action scenes - although those are very nicely executed when the time comes - instead focusing on people picking up on details, maybe playing out how things may go in their heads, and how simple uncompromising process is generally the most effective, even if it's not best in certain ways. Though subject to mainland constraints, it still retains a bit of Hong Kong flavor - Ding makes neither the kidnappers nor the cops appear slick or glamorous - even Wu's circle seems to have more rough edges than movie stars and their retinue often do - although I do wonder if Ding has slipped a bit of subversive ideas in there: The completely immobilizing chair where Zhang Hua is chained for much of his interrogation is a memorable image, welded together in a way that seems both crude and standard, the sort of overkill usually used for the Hannibal Lecter types as opposed to something in every interview room. And, could this have happened at all if the police weren't expected to be bullying and violent?

It may be a mistake to read too much into it; this just may have been the way things happened, with Ding Sheng and company telling the story faithfully, and anything a viewer finds under the surface likely being something he or she brought to the film.rather than what Ding put there. Even if that is the case, "Saving Mr. Wu" has a very nice surface, and may even prove more suspenseful outside of China where the incident that inspired it is not so well-known.

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originally posted: 10/04/15 11:09:03
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Directed by
  Sheng Ding

Written by
  Sheng Ding

  Andy Lau
  Ye Liu
  Qianyuan Wang
  Ruofu Wu
  Zhao Xiaorui
  Lu Peng
  Lu Cai
  Suet Lam

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