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Cloudy Mountain
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by Jay Seaver

"Gets its frantic, destructive job done."
3 stars

China's National Day generally brings a spate of patriotic behemoths to the box office, star-studded flag-waving blockbusters like this year's "The Battle at Lake Changjin" and "My Country, My Parents". "Cloudy Mountain" as a movie is kind of the opening act for that - a somewhat lower budget and less star power, maybe not pushing so hard, but trying to be the same sort of crowd-pleaser. It's a solidly and sometimes surprisingly successful sort of minor disaster movie, not likely to make best-of lists but managing to deliver what it promises.

Yudang Mountain is the landmark in question, located in southwestern China near the town of Yunjiang; a 20-year project to build a tunnel for high-speed rail nearing completion. Conscientious director of blasting Hong Yizhou (Zhu Yilong) and scientist Ding Yajun (Chen Shu), also his girlfriend, are still performing a full brace of tests because the terrain is made of unpredictable karst, and what looked like a simple operation can suddenly turn dangerous. He's also making a bit of effort to avoid his demanding father Yunbing (Huang Zhi-Zhong), a former railway soldier, even going off to check some sensors while Yajun picks him up. That's when everything literally starts to come apart, with cave-ins, sinkholes, and rockslides, and project manager Lu Xiaojin (Jiao Junyan) trying to aid rescue workers while assuring her superiors that the tunnel is not in any danger.

Director Jun Li and co-writer Song Sha don't particularly break new ground here, but there's a lot to be said for hitting the ground running and serving up the good stuff. The visual effects in this movie may not be quite top-tier, but they're plenty effective, and they don't spend much time making the audience wait for the action. Jun and his crew shoot energetically with China's many large-screen and 3D theaters in mind, swooping through the air when the action is in the mountains and building boxes with the occasional terrifying drop or chimney while crawling through caves. They follow the typical disaster movie template from initial warning to major event to needing to rescue the trapped while also planning a large-scale mission to prevent something worse, with family issues and bureaucratic interference along the way. The cast appears to be people who Chinese audiences would find familiar faces from television, with Zhu Yilong and Chen Shu an appealing young couple while Huang Zhi-Zhong and Jiao Junyan certainly feel like folks who have played lots of demanding fathers and stern-but-honest middle managers.

It gets a little messy when the disasters aren't front and center, in large part because the filmmakers don't really seem to have an idea of how to come to a climax; lots of moments of transition and resolution happen offscreen, denying the audience moments of satisfaction (whether schmaltzy or stoic) and a clean pivot to the next stage. Along those lines, there's a weird bit where the thinly-sketched folks that the Hongs are trying to rescue just hang back while they go through their family dreams and the audience can't help but notice the implication that they're not as important, and it's not the only time that happens. The actual finale has a hard time juggling the impulses for heroic self-sacrifice and unlikely victories. It often feels like the producers hired folks who are good with the effects and worried less about the rest.

And, of course, the film eventually starts aggressively checking off the "what the film board wants Chinese films to be" boxes; one can't help but notice that the inspiring speech includes "westerners do that, but we do this" when there aren't any non-Chinese people in the movie. And yet, the drive to "reflect socialist values" also winds up being one of the film's strengths: There is something bizarrely soothing about this frenetic movie - just watching people reflexively and competently pull together and help out when faced with an unexpected crisis feels ridiculously good.

"Cloudy Mountain" is rough in a lot of places, but it's a capable big spectacle that was probably a lot of fun in Imax/3D/D-box, though it doesn't get that sort of release in North America. For two hours of bad stuff happening and good people getting stuff done, though, it's pretty satisfying.

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originally posted: 11/04/21 03:40:11
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  08-Oct-2021 (12)

  N/A (M)

Directed by
  Li Jun

Written by
  Sha Song
  Li Jun

  Yilong Zhu
  Zhi-zhong Huang
  Shu Chen
  Junyan Jiao
  Taishen Cheng

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