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by Jay Seaver

"Focuses as much on the fuse as the detonation."
4 stars

Movies are easily and frequently mocked for jamming an explosion into the action in order to placate the less--sophisticated members of the audience, and it can be a fair criticism - explosions are often a fairly blunt tool, not exactly used for subtle purposes. Filmmaker Chang Zheng apparently took that as a challenge, building his film "Yin Bao Zhe" ("Explosion" in English) not as an action spectacular, but as a film noir, and making it a pretty good one, even if much more does blow up here than is usual for that genre.

Its hard-luck hero is Zhao XuDong (Duan Yihong), an explosives detonator working in a coal mine run by "Brother" Yi, who comes across as more gangster than businessman. The film opens with an explosion much larger than the explosives XuDong set should have caused, killing four and leading Yi to sack XuDong with a small payoff, but not report it to the authorities - an official investigation might turn anything up, maybe even forcing Yi to sell out to Cheng Fei (Cheng Taishen). On the one hand, XuDong is fine with that; even if local chief of police Xu Feng (Wang Jingchun) has been XuDong's friend since childhood, chief safety officer San Bai would probably deflect attention to the guy who spent three years in jail for making homebrew TNT back in the day anyway. Maybe he could use the money to help girlfriend Xiao Hong (Yu Nan) open a bigger, classier restaurant. But the dead men eat at XuDong, and with no official investigation to seal the scene, a man can poke around on his own, whether it's a good idea or not.

Director Chang creates a somber mood right off the bat, opening with narration from XuDong about how his father said not to follow him into the mines but implying that he wound up there anyway out of some sort of inevitability, like that's just how it works in this sort of community. If the film doesn't actually open in the mine, the camera is moving into them soon enough, and even when the action moves out from underground, Chang maintains that sort of aesthetic - it never fully washes off of XuDong, for instance, and Hong's restaurant is also tight and claustrophobic, with the miners bringing the coal dust in with them. It doesn't confer any sort of unusual working-class decency to the likes of XuDong, but it does make the wealthy folks like Cheng Fei seem unnaturally clean. The movie lives in these grimy industrial places and the industrial town that surrounds them, enough to make a bright desert setting seen later on seem not like freedom, but like the people there have been removed from the world entirely.

Though there's pessimism to XuDong's narration, he belongs there, and Duan Yihong delivers an appropriately disheveled performance as the character. The makeup team may be responsible for the cuts and bruises he carries through the film from an early beating, but he's the one bringing the slumped posture indicating a powerful self-doubt about his own worth that balances precariously with certainty where his expertise is concerned; it's just the right air for an amateur sleuth driven by something he can't articulate. He's given a number of worthy co-stars to play against, with Cheng Taishen his most obvious polar opposite as Cheng Fei. He's a mild veneer over ruthlessness, the sort of expectedly-corrupt figure a good noir needs; the audience may be tempted to be behind him early, as he at least seems more professional than Yi with a legitimate grievance, and Cheng is good at working the millimeter his mask needs to slip to become a more clear danger. Meanwhile, Yu Nan and Wang Jingchun seem to be portraying different halves of XuDong - Yu's Hong is similarly worn-down, but quiet and empathetic, while Wang's Feng is sharp and uncompromising, though both tend point to WuDong toward doing the right thing.

He won't necessarily have much choice; XuDong's story may initially look like the sort of box that one has to open but it soon becomes the type that one must escape, as must happen when the antagonists are more driven and probably more intelligent than he is. Chang and co-writer Meng Li do a fair job of biding their time while XuDong figures out what he's into. They have good pulp instincts, grounding things in the working-class perspective while still giving those a rung or two up a little scenery to chew, and staging a few good scenes to keep the audience's attention while bigger things play out behind the scenes. A bit where a drop of nitroglycerin in the wrong place packs as much tension as many movies manage with the threat of much more dynamite being on tap.

Of course, Chang's movie has more than that on tap as well, and he eventually starts building scenes around further explosions because dynamite is both one of the more convenient murder weapons to be found at a coal mine and what XuDong is good at. The filmmakers manage a good shift to this sort of action - they're aware of how explosions are not exactly something that can be wielded with precision (you can basically just escalate), so they build those scenes as best they can, letting them feel like knockout punches, mostly messy in the way that the rest of the film is.

The marriage between Chang's noir-ish ambitions and the explosive moments isn't perfect, especially as the end approaches and he seems to feel some pressure to make a crowd-pleaser rather than the cynical crime story he'd been building from the start (though he is able to be more low-key than most in the thorough accounting necessary demanded when making Chinese crime movies). But it's a better fit than it might have been, an atmospheric thriller rather than the blunt one a viewer might expect.

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originally posted: 11/30/17 11:51:51
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  24-Nov-2017 (MA)

Directed by
  Zheng Chang

Written by
  Zheng Chang
  Meng Li

  Yihong Duan
  Nan Yu
  Jingchun Wang
  Taishen Cheng

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