Lethal Hostage 邊境風雲
Contemporary crime drama
2012, colour, 2.35:1, 109 mins
Directed by Cheng Er (程耳)
By Derek Elley
Mon, 27 August 2012, 23:45 PM (HKT)
Manipulative but gripping crime rondo set in the southern drug trade, with a fine cast. Asian and genre events, plus some other festivals and ancillary.
China, the present day. In southern Yunnan province, on the border with Burma, a young woman (May Wang) visits her widowed father (Ni Dahong) but fails to persuade him to bless her marriage to her husband (Song Honglei). In Beijing, a National Narcotics Control Commission detective (Zhang Mo) from Yunnan is on the trail of a drugs carrier (Yang Kun), but the latter escapes and reaches Mengxiu in southern Yunnan for another pick-up. Chapter 1: The Dog (狗). While transferring the drugs into scroll knobs, the carrier is disturbed in his dingy flat by a young woman next door (Gao Ye) whose dog won't stop barking at him. He is forced to take measures after her elder brother, the narcotics detective, drops her back home that evening. Chapter 2: The Past (往事). In a rundown mall in Mengxiu, a drugs deal is about to take place in a restaurant. At a clinic opposite, a dentist (Ni Dahong) is asked to do some emergency treatment on an old man, who is accompanied by a sidekick (Song Honglei). The drugs deal goes wrong, and in the chaos the sidekick kidnaps the dentist's young daughter and escapes back to Burma. Later, the dentist tries to rescue her but fails and is sent to prison back in China. Ten years later, after being released, he's visited by his daughter (May Wang), now married to the sidekick. Chapter 3: The Daughter (女兒). The daughter has grown up in Burma, where she is a kindergarten teacher and is married to the sidekick, now a successful druglord of his own. Wanting to settle down with his wife, he decides to retire after one last job, a decision which imperils both their lives. Chapter 4: The Past (往事). The narcotics detective goes back to his sister's flat after dropping her off earlier that evening; he finds it empty but suspects she may not be far away. Meanwhile, the sidekick-turned-druglord, now back in China, arranges a meeting with the drugs carrier for one final piece of business.
From its opening, 15-second shot of the back of a young woman's head, Lethal Hostage 邊境風雲 knows exactly what it's doing and what it wants the audience to experience. A highly manipulative crime drama, divided into a prologue and four chapters which juggle with the plot's time-line, and shot in a planned way that appears to spring straight from a storyboard, it maintains its grip on the viewer not only through sheer technical artifice but also by a tip-top cast that manages to breathe life into potentially cut-out characters and climax in a surprisingly moving end. This second feature by writer-director CHENG Er 程耳 is a powerful follow-up to his equally controlled brain-teaser Unfinished Girl 第三個人 (2007) and, though seemingly a one-trick pony, actually repays repeated viewings.
Where Unfinished Girl was largely set in a northern Chinese apartment where an insurance investigator is held captive by his apparently crazed sister-in-law (GAO Yuanyuan 高圓圓, in one of her least-known but best performances), Lethal Hostage is largely set in sub-tropical landscape around the Burma border, where druglords ferry their wares across to southern China for pick-up. (The film's Chinese title roughly translates as Border Squall(s).) After a young woman revisits her father after a space of time, and asks him to bless her marriage to a man he doesn't like, the rest of the movie fills in the past and the present of the three people, as well as the lives of another three connected with them. Basically a rondo-like story centred on six characters, Hostage artfully juggles events (and the audience's perceptions) in a highly cinematic, calculated way.
In its game-playing and fractured structure, the movie recalls other crime dramas like LIU Fendou 劉奮鬥's heist drama Green Hat 綠帽子 (2004) (and his much less successful Ocean Flame 一半海水一半火焰 (2008)), and even FEI Xing 非行's recent The Man Behind the Courtyard House 守望者：罪惡迷途 (2010). Among the producer credits it's no surprise to find the name of NING Hao 寧浩, director of brain-twisters Crazy Stone 瘋狂的石頭 (2006) and Crazy Racer 瘋狂的賽車 (2008). Though it does have its fair share of ironic black humour, the take of Cheng, who graduated from Beijing Film Academy 北京電影學院 in 1999, is much less playful than that of Liu or Ning, and with none of their emotional excesses. But he's helped by a cast that is absolutely perfect.
As the deadly drugs-carrier who doesn't think twice about murdering anyone who gets in his way, Inner Mongolian-born husky-ballad singer YANG Kun 楊坤 physically fits the role in an offbeat piece of casting. He's well matched by TV actor ZHANG Mo 張默 (the best friend in Liu's The Pretending Lovers 假裝情侶 (2011)) as the equally dour narcotics cop on his trail. But the film belongs to two much more experienced actors: top-billed SUN Honglei 孫紅雷, who's made a whole career out of expressionless characters (both serious and romantic), as the sidekick who becomes a disillusioned druglord and veteran NI Dahong 倪大紅 as his sad-sack father-in-law who carries a deeply buried resentment against the icy criminal. Watching these two minimalist actors together is worth the price of admission alone, and in a film that is light on dialogue Sun communicates more with a glance or a twitch of his nose than pages of conversation.
In a largely male movie, May WANG 王珞丹, here very different from her kooky role in CHEN Kaige 陳凱歌's Caught in the Web 搜索, is okay as the cute young woman caught between the two men. But it's Zhejiang-born newcomer GAO Ye 高葉, who made her name with the 30-part internet drama Love Male Host (愛上男主播, 2010), who has a much more flavoursome supporting role as the cop's mouthy, bad-girl sister.
Photography by XU Wei 徐偉 (Unfinished Girl) of the Yunnan locations around the border town of Ruili are clean and precise, contrasted with that by DU Jie 杜傑 (Crazy Stone, Wind Blast 西風烈 (2010), Kora 轉山 (2011)) in the more dour-looking Beijing scenes. The offbeat score by trip-hop musician CHEN Weilun 陳偉倫 is particularly effective in putting dramatic bounce into the early scenes when the audience still has no clue about what is precisely going on.
ContactSales: Galloping Horse, Beijing (email@example.com)
Theatrical release: China, 17 Aug 2012.
Presented by Tianjin North Film Group (CN), Beijing Galloping Horse Film (CN), Beijing Union Three Culture Media (CN), Tianjin Binhai Pictures International (CN), Yunnan Culture Investment (Beijing) (CN), Wanda Media (CN). Produced by Dongyangyingyue Film Production (CN). Executive producers: Wang Dafang, Li Ming, Tang Guoqiang, Zeng Hai, Song Ge. Producer: Ning Hao.
Script: Cheng Er. Photography: Xu Wei (Yunnan), Du Jie (Beijing). Editing: Cheng Er. Music: Chen Weilun. Songs: Zuoxiao Zuzhou, Chen Weilun. Art direction: Zhong Cheng (Yunnan), Zhang Xiaobing (Beijing). Costumes: Duan Xiaoli, Jia Liying. Sound: Wu Na, Yang Jiang. Visual effects: Xu Jian (More Visual Production). Executive directors: Ji Jiatong, Liu Yizhou (Yunnan), Ge Zi (Beijing).
Cast: Sun Honglei (the sidekick/druglord), May Wang (his wife), Ni Dahong (her father), Zhang Mo (the narcotics detective), Yang Kun (the drugs carrier), Gao Ye (the detective's younger sister), Zhang Yanqing, Meng Jianxin, Liu Yizhou, Wang Jiandong, Meng Haoqiang, Hong Chang, Ye Ting, Hu Baidu, Li Min, Feng Xiaofei, Xiao Long, Huang Shunjie, Jin Liu, Wei Da.