Saving Mr. Wu (Jie jiu Wu xian sheng)

China (2015) Dir. Ding Sheng

Whether one approaches films that are “based on a true story” with a sense of caution or pessimism, there is no denying they lay the foundation for satisfying entertainment. The plot for Saving Mr. Wu is based on real events involving one of the cast members, which must have made for a harrowing experience on set to relive his ordeal.

Told in a rather roundabout manner, i.e. flipping between timelines, this is a tale of a serendipitous kidnapping which ultimately led to the downfall of the criminal gang involved. The audacious plan sees a gang led by Zhang Hua (Wang Qianyuan) masquerade as police and “arrest” anyone with money under false pretentious then hold them to ransom, usually killing them despite being paid.

On this fateful night Zhang abducts film star Mr. Wu (Andy Lau) and thinks he has hit the mother lode in terms of financial reward. The day before Zhang kidnaps a random man Xiao Dou (Cai Lu) whom he plans to execute to show Wu how serious he is, but Wu offers to pay Dou’s ransom as well. Meanwhile Wu’s colleagues and circle of friends working alongside the police to track him down and rescue him.

Bravely allowing his past to haunt him is popular TV actor Wu Ruofu, playing a police captain here, who was abducted in 2004 by a criminal gang who didn’t know he was an actor, targeting him because of his flash car. Wu was held for 20 hours but the police managed to track him down and rescue him before he was seriously harmed.

Naturally there are some major embellishments made to the story but the fundamentals remain unchanged, including the detail of Zhang’s gag kidnapping and killing the younger brother of a gang leader for RMB 1 million a week before the Wu saga. This incident alerted the police to Zhang’s actions, coming so soon after his release from jail following a nine-year sentence.

Director Ding Sheng, recently helming Jackie Chan’s Police Story: Lockdown, opts for a slightly challenging narrative in opening with Wu’s kidnapping, then cutting to the police questioning Zhang, who then decides to recollect the story from the start to explain how he was captured. Thankfully it isn’t confusing but does give the impression of being a comedy film until it settles down into a taut crime drama.

The fact Wu is a celebrity – portrayed as a much bigger star than the real Wu – is rather incidental as Zhang is only about the money, but Wu’s status does mean a more substantial pay off. That is the notion by Wu scuppers it almost immediately by pointing out most of his money is in Hong Kong while his funds on the mainland amount to a few million.

Zhang is appalled by this but decides RMB three million is enough and agrees to this figure. Wu calls his trusted friend Mr. Su (Lam Suet) to make the transaction on his behalf with Zhang maintaining contact at all times, unaware the police are on his trail. Zhang then slips up by visiting his girlfriend Chenchen (Vivien Li) and is arrested but will he co-operate with the police and stop Zhang and Dou from execution?

Despite the central premise being quite straightforward there is a complex psychological edge to how the story plays out on two fronts. First there is the way Wu manages to stay relatively calm under pressure, saving Dou from further torture and keeping his spirits up, whilst even striking up a rapport with Zhang and some of his henchmen.

The other aspect is Zhang himself. A completely deranged individual, he has a nervous energy about him that suggests he may not be in full control, but his mind is as sharp as a knife. His ability to outthink the police with his intricate stratagems when collecting payments or making trips is perversely admirable but his almost misanthropic disregard for another human life is unnerving.

Making the film a little more interesting is how the film is structured, building up to the climax with only brief bursts of action in the interim, rather than the usual linear approach rife with failed drops offs, cerebral outmanoeuvring by the criminals and raised random demands. The police procedures are juxtaposed with Zhang’s equally stringent game plans, it is just a matter of who drops the ball first.

During the end credits, footage from the real life rescue mission airs, showing us how faithful Sheng’s replication was of the situation. Granted the actual raid was far less exciting and briefer, but the visual representation is uncanny. The handling of the drama of this scene is surprisingly restrained, employing slow motion and no over musical soundtrack, just a simple heartbeat accompaniment heightening the race against time.   

For a mega star like Andy Lau, the role of Wu stands as one of his most paired back performances, since he is largely sedentary chained to a chair and free from any glamour. His well-earned gravitas never dulls, neither does it overpower others in his scenes, allowing for a inclusive scenario where he is just one of many on screen, making Wu a dignified but charitable man despite his status.

However, this may sound like heresy, but this film belongs to Wang Qianyuan. In Zhang he has created one of the most fascinating antagonists seen in a long while (how much of it based on the real kidnapper is anyone’s guess), a skin Wang inhabits a little too comfortably. Zhang has a warped sense of values but his verbiage is oddly acute as his observations and sophistry attest, while physically he looks unassumingly dangerous.

The fact Saving Mr. Wu is made with help from the real victim gives the end away but this is about the journey and not the destination. Sheng manages to adhere to the genre conventions whilst throwing in a few curveballs in what is a riveting crime drama.