Who doesn’t enjoy a huge, thrilling explosion on film in all its CGI glory? The bigger the conflagration and the greater the destruction, the better. So what about the story of an unlucky mine expert who, through no fault of his own, is forced to run around the towns and mountains of northern China packing a small arsenal of homemade bombs that would make James Bond green with envy, while he tries to stay one step ahead of the cops and killers on his trail?
That’s the catchy premise behind Explosion, the sophomore directing effort of Chang Zheng, whose previous feature credit is the dark family comedy Ma Wen’s Battle. More thriller than actioner, and influenced by stylish art cinema more than Hollywood, it starts off with quite a bang. In the claustrophobic bowels of a mine, a blast goes wrong and sends a flaming fireball racing through the shaft in a brief but effective disaster scene that leaves four workmen dead and the audience hungry for more.
Keeping a taut tension between genre and realism for most of its running time, this exciting but uneven thriller runs out of dynamite in the last reel.
Duan Yi-hong (Drifters, The Dead End), who is receiving the Star Asia Award this week at the New York Asian Film Festival, is gritty and glammed down as experienced blast technician Zhou Yu-dong. He’s stunned and injured by the explosion, but instead of rushing him to the nearest hospital, his gangster-boss Li Yi knocks him down for screwing up, then throws hush money at him. The four victims, who are seen only from their burnt feet, are quickly buried.
Zhou is too expert not to smell a rat. Exiled from the mine, he moodily hangs around a local eatery run by his eye-catching girlfriend (the fine Yu Nan from The Expendables 2) until he makes up his mind to investigate what really happened. In a suspenseful but realistic scene, a lab techie at the mine spills a drop of recovered explosive on his shoe, and he and Zhou are horrified to watch it smoking its way through the leather. Ever so carefully, they carry it outside, where it explodes. A few scenes later, the whole mining headquarters disintegrates in a satisfying blast.
As the body count grows, the police move in and focus on Zhou as their prime suspect. He doesn’t open his mouth to vindicate himself with the nice cop leading the investigation, preferring to take the more prudent course of flight. (The dialogue mentions that the same cop sent him to prison “last time.”)
Just as Duan plays the blaster with brooding, tight-lipped realism rather than conventional heroics, the screenplay by Chang and Li Meng toys with something approaching social realism. Overhead shots of lonely landscapes, moodily photographed in the rain and mud by cinematographer Chan Chor-keung, are dotted with stone Buddhas carved into a mountainside. The atmosphere, in short, leads one to believe something serious is at stake behind the gunpowder.
Or is it? Yu Nan’s conventional role as the pretty girl in the story bodes no good. Things get out of hand and morally confusing when Zhou, on the run from the cops, starts setting off small explosives in a crowded market to distract his pursuers — blasts in which people apparently get hurt.
New to Chinese films is the extent to which the main character is depicted as an antihero; though his plight evokes sympathy, he’s clearly willing to harm innocent bystanders to keep out of the hands of the police and the ruthless killer dogging his tracks. While, for example, the drunken detective in Black Coal, Thin Ice still held on to his principles and quest for the truth even after being suspended from the police force, this protagonist seems motivated only by a strong survival instinct for himself and his pregnant girlfriend.
The tension starts evaporating with the introduction of a new villain, a refined culture maven who hovers over his terminally ill brother, dabbing gently at his forehead, and performs tea ceremonies for his guests. As realism flies out the window, so does the writers’ invention. The long closing sequence is a major letdown, shot like a sort of bomb fight at the O.K. Corral. The film ends on a petulant note of complaint from Zhou to his policeman-nemesis, so out of place it got an unplanned laugh from the Shanghai audience.
Of note is the excellent modern soundtrack by Zhang Yi-lin, which experiments with abstract rhythmic sounds in place of music to pump up the suspense.
Production companies: Beijing Ferry Pictures, Beijing Light King Pictures
Cast: Duan Yi-hong, Yu Nan, Wang Jing-chun, Cheng Tai-shen
Director: Chang Zheng
Screenwriters: Chang Zheng, Li Meng
Producer: Xia Wei-zheng
Executive producer: Zhang Dai-jun
Director of photography: Chan Chor-keung
Production designer: Liu Wei-xin
Music: Zhang Yi-lin
Editors: Zhu Li-yun, Tu Yi-ran
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (closing film)
Sales: Huayi Brothers