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Savage (2019)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/06/19 09:47:59

"Decent Chinese noir where you can see the potential for greatness."
3 stars (Average)

Cui Siwei's "Savage" opens with a clever heist but keeps cutting away from it to something that promises to be less exciting, which seems to be sort of the opposite of how the tease at the start of a movie should work. There's still what amounts to a decent thriller to come, but it's a scramble that takes advantage of its setting, not the cutting sort of noir it could be.

That crime involves mastermind Damao (Liao Fan), partner Zhou (Wang Taili), and Damao's punk brother Ermao (Huang Jue) robbing a truck containing bars of gold from a nearby mine under the guise of illegal loggers. That - and poachers like Guo San (Liu Hua) are more the sort of problems that the local cops are used to facing, though Han Xiaosong (Li Guangjie) and Wang Kanghao (Chang Chen) are, at that moment, more concerned with who is going to be promoted to the city and who Doctor Sun Yan (Ni Ni) finds more appealing - at least, until they come across Damao's gang while on patrol. A year later, the case remains unsolved, with the rumors that Guo San has found a bar of gold and used it to purchase a new rifle an obsessed Kanghao's best lead. Following it up will lead him and new partner Zhang Lu (Zhang Yicong) in the right direction, but the clock is ticking on Damao using the frozen river to transport the gold even if the fiercest blizzard in years wasn't due to arrive in mere hours.

It's kind of a bore talking about the rules that the Chinese film industry must operate under every time even a moderately complex crime movie from that country opens, but one can't help but wonder what sort of movie Cui could have made if the likes of Damao and Guo San were allowed to be full-on antiheroes. There are glimpses of it in Damao's opening narration, where he talks about his family coming from a long line of loggers abandoned when the government made it illegal; the symbolism of him using those skills to attack a transport taking the region's riches away would be richer if the film could lean into it. There's such potential in the clash between the locals desperately trying to survive or escape their homes and the likes of city people like Kanghao and Sun Yan who can leave when their assignment is complete, satisfied in a job well done, that it's a shame it can't be played closer to the foreground. Instead, the film sort of stops at Damao being worried about his no-account brother and Kanghao's obsession threatening his relationship with Sun Yan.

That simplicity doesn't hold Cui back from building an impressively ruthless second half. Some of the issues from the opening are still there - he can occasionally lose track of where the audience's interest lies or not supply enough intrigue to other threads, depending on whether one is inclined to fault him as the director or as the writer - but so do the positives. He's got a mind for building action sequences around specific locations and conditions, and he is paired with a top-notch cinematographer and practical effects team to capture the harsh but beautiful environment. He's more inclined to let the audience catch up once things really start moving than let the movie bog down with too many explanations.

He's got a solid cast to work with, too; Chang Chen makes the transition from seeming rookie to grizzled veteran very well, for instance, bantering nicely with Li Guangjie and seeming a good match for Ni Ni as Sun Yan. Ni Ni gets to play Sun as intelligent and independent but never boringly practical or helpless, exercising her own agency rather than coming across as just existing in relation to Kanghao, even when she's giving something up to go to him. Liao Fan gives Damao a pleasing solidity, seeming like he doesn't have to be a criminal but doesn't particularly mind, while Wang Taili is able to make Zhou quietly ruthless but rational rather than psychotic in the way characters in his position usually are once it becomes clear that there's no honor among thieves. A lot of that comes from Cui's script, of course, but it's often hard to find the middle ground between dull and scenery-chewing in this sort of movie, and that everyone manages to find the right sort of attitude to match weather (chilly but also vicious) while still staking out their own place.

Sometimes, this is all you need, and "Savage" ("Xue bao" or "Snowstorm" in Mandarin) supplies in in mostly-capable fashion. Even taking into account the conditions under which Cui made it, it's still kind of a rough first feature at spots, enough that even as one is enjoying it, it's hard not to wish for the great noir it could be rather than the pretty-decent one that it is.

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