Another year, another Chinese crime thriller set in a desolate outpost beset by harsh weather and even harsher antagonists. But Savage is a very different beast from what came before. Cui Siwei’s directorial debut prioritizes visual pomposity over narrative complexity and social meaning — two things that shaped, for example, Dong Yue’s rain-drenched neo-noir The Looming Storm last year. This is admittedly surprising for someone like Cui, who made a name for himself as a screenwriter on films like the Jackie Chan actioner Bleeding Steel and Huang Bo’s blockbuster comedy The Island.
Bowing at Busan, Savage loomed large over its more modestly funded rivals in the New Currents competition. It had unquestionable appeal for Busan audiences with its depictions of the legendary Changbai Mountain, aka Mount Baekdu, a revered landmark mentioned in the Korean folk song “Arirang.”
Taut, stylish and straightforward.
Chinese and international viewers will probably embrace the film simply for its powerful vistas and simple, accessible plot. The onscreen presence of critical darlings such as Chang Chen (The Grandmaster,The Assassin) and Liao Fan (a Berlin award-winner with Black Coal, Thin Ice and the star of Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is the Purest White) should secure Savage some robust business on the festival circuit.
Deadfall or The Snowman this certainly is not. Savage rivals most mid-budget Euro-American wintry police actioners in its lush production values and slick execution of genre tropes. There are plenty of visceral thrills on offer in the dark and violent confrontations between a hard-boiled detective and a gang of cold-blooded robbers, as the action unfolds in impressively choreographed sequences on Changbai’s snow-covered slopes in northeastern China. Produced by Terence Chang, who was John Woo’s producer throughout the Hong Kong auteur’s glorious, trigger-happy days in the 1980s and 1990s, Savage harks back to an age when cops-and-robbers flicks were irony-free showdowns between good and evil, with a damsel in distress caught between the two.
Conforming to the norms that shaped Hong Kong actioners in their heyday, the pic begins with a high-octane set piece. Three vicious criminals — the aloof leader (Liao), his flamboyant kid brother (Zhang Yicong) and a sly sharpshooter (Huang Jue) — set out to ambush a security truck carrying gold bars over a snowy mountain road. An avalanche, a shootout and a car crash later, the story switches to a nearby town where two cop buddies, Wang Kanghao (Chang Chen) and Han Xiaosong (Li Guangjie), are busy jostling for the affections of local lady doctor Sun Yan (Ni Ni).
Ten minutes later, Han is dead, following a run-in with the three robbers. Having survived by mere chance, the good-hearted Wang abruptly turns into a jaded detective who goes about his work with scant regard for the rules or his own safety. When he hears the three robbers have returned to the area, a battle of guns and wits ensues across blinding white forests and gritty mountain roads. Wang is sold out by the very guide employed to hunt down the robbers, while the villains themselves shift alliances over how to split last year’s loot. Inevitably, Sun somehow also gets herself mixed up in the affair. The final face-off in a wood cabin wouldn’t look out of a place in a spaghetti Western.
Indeed, most of Savage‘s characters remain as predictable as a Clint Eastwood turn in a Sergio Leone movie. Chang carries the same world-weary expression throughout the film, while Liu spends most of his screen time growling like a bulldog; Ni only breaks a sweat when her character is slapped by a baddie, just as Huang and Zhang barely bring nuances to their sidekick roles.
If they all seem like ciphers in a bigger plan, it’s because the pic has little interest in its characters’ emotions and concentrates on the plot pitching them against each other amid sweeping landscapes. With the help of Du Jie’s smooth camerawork, Lu Wei’s production design and squadrons of special effects artists whose names seem to go on forever in the end credits, Cui has delivered a widescreen spectacle showing what the Chinese film industry is now capable of. Along with the Chinese censor’s seal of approval at the start of the film, there’s never any doubt justice will prevail — but Savage at least comes up with a taut and stylish way of making that happen.
Production companies: Horgos Youth Enlight Pictures, Helichenhuang International Culture Media (Beijing), Hehe Pictures
Cast: Chang Chen, Liao Fan, Ni Ni, Huang Jue
Director-screenwriter: Cui Siwei
Producer: Terence Chang
Director of photography: Du Jie
Production designer: Lu Wei
Costume designer: Zhang Shijie
Editing: Du Yuan
Action director: Sang Lin
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
Sales: Horgos Youth Enlight Pictures