Savage (Xue bao)

China (2018) Dir. Cui Siwei

Patience is a virtue but some people run out of it pretty quickly, situation dictating of course. But, if all good things come to those who wait then theoretically so should the bad things, which makes the concept of patience a rather flawed one, doesn’t it?

In the snowy peaks of Baekdu Mountain on the China-North Korea border, two police officers Wang Kanghao (Chang Chen) and Han Xiaosong (Li Guangjie) are vying for the affection of dedicated doctor Sun Yan (Ni Ni) who is waiting be transferred to Beijing. One day their patrol is interrupted by the news a truck of gold bullion with police escort was intercepted by criminals and they are sent to investigate.

They collide with the criminals and a shoot out ensues, leaving Xiaosong dead. One year later, a huge blizzard is due to hit town, prompting the criminals to return and find the gold they were forced to leave behind before the pass is blocked off. Seeking revenge for Xiaosong’s death, Kanghao tracks the group down leading to an impasse, which peaks when both parties, as well as Sun, are trapped together in a mountain resort.

Screenwriter Cui Siwei decides to step into the director’s seat for Savage, his fifth film as a writer, though with one of his prior efforts being the underperforming Jackie Chan flick Bleeding Steel, there is a lot riding on this one. As it happens, Cui has crafted a solid, moody crime thriller that, because of its wintry setting, feels more akin to Nordic Noir than anything Asian.

Another facet to support this comparison is the quiet atmospherics created by the eerie silence and plain white vistas, something rarely seen in Asian cinema. The criminal activity might be just at home in the bustle of the streets of Hong Kong, but the remote wilderness of the frosty mountains gives it an unique enough edge to feel different and fresh, which Cui wisely makes the most out of.    

Unfortunately, this can’t be said too much about the characters who are thinly drawn but aren’t so one dimensional we can predict their moods, actions, and reactions. In an early  scene, Kanghao arrives late to a birthday meal for Sun just as it seems Xiaosong might have won Sun over, the rivalry between the two for her love is serious but thankfully not damaging to their own relationship.

With all signs pointing to Sun liking Kanghao more, she still refuses to choose which one of them should accept a transfer to the city. Perhaps this was a mistake on her part as a few hours later the choice is made for her by the gold thieves – boss Damao (Liao Fan), younger brother Ermao (Zhang Yicong), and psychopath Zhang (Huang Jue).

Given the remote location, one would think a heist would be straightforward but the plan is an audacious one, almost perfectly executed, to appear natural and above suspicion. Part of its cleverness is using the current illegal logging trade as their cover – their innocuous looking tractor is blocking the mountain path so the police overtake them, only to be knocked off track and over the edge. They then release an avalanche of logs from above so the gold truck and its passengers also take a tumble down below.

Displaying the barest of criminal characteristics, this evil trio are certainly that in spades, making it easier to root for Kanghao and to accept that redemption is not high on their list of priorities. Damao is the cold, almost stoic leader willing to beat even his own punkish brother in admonishment for slipping up, whilst Zhang is somewhere between calculating and unabashedly unhinged.

Kanghao has become a darker, insular person in the year since witnessing Xiaosong’s death, quick to temper and uncaring about rules and protocol, making Sun second guess their friendship as she finally prepares to leave for Beijing. Her plans are again thwarted when she is caught up in the blood feud between Kanghao and the gang, trapped in the resort and forced to play doctor to whichever injured party is brought back.

But Sun isn’t the only one caught in the crossfire – aging trail guide Guo San (Liu Hua) is recruited to help Kanghao find the gold, but ends up finding a lone ingot and plans to haul the lot for himself. In the name of self-preservation, Guo switches sides depending on who has the advantage, making a nuisance of himself as much as a valuable ally, as the casualties turn into a body count.

Cui delivers a film with a slight tonal identity crisis – one is a quiet, brooding, suitably chilly personal drama, with occasional bursts of genre-related action to interrupt the calmer moments of contemplation and lifesaving negotiation. The other sees Cui going full-on gonzo mode with the blood soaked violence, especially during the climax which we knew was coming, but still jars as being at extreme odds to the comparative restraint that preceded it.

A lull in the middle section, which should have been trimmed to allow the claustrophobic tension of the third act to reach its suspenseful apex, also brings the energy level down when it needed to peak. However, the photography is utterly exquisite and enchantingly sobering that we can rest our eyes and our brains during these moments and enjoy the sights, every bit as picturesque as its European counterparts.

The strong, responsive cast do their level best to bring out as much as possible from their characters to give us a sufficient reading on who they are, but if I had to commit to an opinion, token female Sun could have been a bit stronger, though Ni Ni is far from window dressing.

In relaying how, good or bad, everyone suffers at the hand of fate Savage has way too much going for it to be judged by its weaker elements, showing Cui to be a promising director with plenty of room to grow and learn. Good debut!

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