China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 105 mins.
Director: Chang Zheng 常征.
A strong cast is undercut by an increasingly cliched second half in this mining drama-cum-thriller.
A city in Shanxi province, northern China, Nov 2014. Following in his late father’s footsteps, Zhao Xudong (Duan Yihong) has been working as an explosives engineer in the local coal mine for 20 years. One day, however, an underground detonation goes horribly wrong: in the fireball, four men die and Zhao Xudong is knocked unconscious. Despite Zhao Xudong’s protests of innocence, mine owner Li Yi (Lu Peng) pays him off and tells him to keep his mouth shut, or else. Zhao Xudong refuses to talk about the incident to either his girlfriend Xiao Hong (Yu Nan), who runs a small restaurant, or police detective Xu Feng (Wang Jingchun), whom he’s known all his life. Xu Feng is investigating a car crash in which Ding Jianwei, also an explosives engineer, was killed. Zhao Xudong visits the mine’s lab technician, Liao Yan (Yang Dong), who says he’s recovered a powerful liquid explosive from the site that should not have been used. Poking around in the mine, Zhao Xudong is attacked by safety officer Wang Sanbai (Zhang Chunnian), whom he finds was responsible for causing the fireball by igniting mine gas. He takes Wang Sanbai to Li Yi who, enraged, drowns him in anger. Subsequently, Li Yi is forced to sign the mine over to businessman Cheng Fei (Cheng Taishen); soon afterwards, Li Yi is killed by an explosion in his office. Zhao Xudong visits Liao Yan’s lab and finds him dead, murdered by Cheng Fei’s assassin, Jiu (Yu Ailei). He’s almost killed as well by Jiu, and both flee the scene as the lab goes up in flames and the police arrive. Zhao Xudong tells Xiao Hong he’s going on the run, as the police will never believe his innocence, especially as he already has a prison record. She helps drive him out of town and en route tells him she’s pregnant. But they’ve been followed by Jiu, who then tries to kill both of them.
A strong cast fails to bring much credibility to mine-disaster drama Explosion 引爆者 which, after an interesting, noirish start, becomes increasingly generic and unbelievable. As a sacked explosives specialist who gets ever more desperate as he tries to clear his name, Duan Yihong 段奕宏, one of the Mainland’s most distinctive middle-generation actors, delivers another realistically grizzled performance but is finally asked to jump through too many hoops by the film-makers, who can’t make up their minds whether they’re making a grungy drama or an action thriller. Box-office response has been blah, with a mild RMB48 million in the first 10 days – though that’s still twice as good as another noirish Duan drama released a week earlier, serial-killer mystery The Looming Storm 暴雪将至. Good actor though he is, Duan, 44, is still not a commercial draw on his own.
Explosion is the fifth feature by Chang Zheng 常征, 43, who started in TV documentaries before switching to fiction, initially with the commercial comedy 笑里逃生 (literally, “Escaping with Laughter”, 2005) and then with two DV dramas produced by Tian Zhuangzhuang 田壮壮, North of the Water 水之北 (2005) and Warm Winter 冬暖 (2006). But it’s for the acerbic black comedy Ma Wen’s Battle 马文的战争 (2010) – a kind of grittily-shot riposte to the trend in glossy rom-coms – for which he’s best known. Though Ma Wen was adapted from a novella by an established writer, it still had a strong personal flavour in the directing and a consistent tone – neither of which are evident in Explosion.
Duan, who was so good as the new police boss in The Dead End 烈日灼心 (2015), and stole the show as the evil druglord in Extraordinary Mission 非凡任务 (2017), starts out in full taciturn northern mode as an explosives expert who’s blamed for an underground fireball that claimed four lives. Despite 20 years’ experience, he’s paid off by the mine’s gangster-ish owner (granite-faced Lu Peng 陆彭, great) and told to keep his mouth shut – which he does even to his girlfriend (Yu Nan 余男) and local police detective he’s known since childhood (Wang Jingchun 王景春). But as he uncovers murky dealings, he finds himself on the run from both the police and a ruthless businessman (Cheng Taishen 成泰燊) and his assassin (Yu Ailei 余皑磊).
There’s nothing wrong with the main roles, all of which play to the actors’ strengths: Yu as the plucky owner of a small restaurant, Wang as a sympathetic detective who still has to do his job, Yu (the smartest kidnapper in Saving Mr. Wu 解救吾先生, 2015) as a weasily killer. As the aesthete villain, Cheng is cast in a very different role from his hangdog eponymous hero in Ma Wen but at least plays the corny role absolutely straight. The problems are all in the screenplay by Li Meng 李萌 and Chang, whose second half, as Our Hero goes on the run, is not only repetitive – yoyo-ing back and forth into town and repeatedly escaping from the police – but also isn’t very thrilling – conjuring up homemade bombs at the drop of a hat and a warehouse climax that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1980s Hong Kong B-movie. Adding to the problems is that the moral compass of Duan’s anti-hero is rather shakey: he has, we learn, a prison record and his attitude to the whole mess is driven more by the wish for a quiet life than any great sense of justice.
That’s all a pity, as the first half holds plenty of promise as a noirish drama set in a drab, hard-knuckle Shanxi mining community, convincingly evoked by almost b&w photography by Hong Kong d.p. Chen Chuqiang 陈楚强 (Call of Heroes 危城, 2016) and grungy art direction and styling by Liu Weixin 刘维新 (Buddha Mountain 观音山, 2010) and Liu Jun 刘珺 (Dinner for Six 六人晚餐, 2016). But as Duan’s anti-hero later goes from one chase to another, from one half-believable situation to another even less believable, even the accompaniment becomes more cliched, with wailing northern folk music and intercut pipa playing. The increasing staginess of the whole movie is summed up by a confrontation in a traffic jam that, in the hands of a real thriller director, could have been genuinely tense. Similarly, the warehouse finale delivers on the film’s title but not in any other way – partly because the viewer by then has given up on the characters’ fates.
The Chinese title means “The Detonator”. Shooting was in the coal-mining city of Datong, Shanxi province, west of Beijing.
Presented by Huayi Brothers Pictures (CN), Khorgos Taihe Digital Entertainment Cultural Development (CN), Beijing Ferry Pictures (CN). Produced by Beijing Ferry Pictures (CN), Huocheng Ferry Pictures (CN), Beijing Light King Pictures (CN).
Script: Li Meng, Chang Zheng. Photography: Chen Chuqiang. Editing: Tu Yiran, Zhu Liyun. Music: Zhang Yilin. Art direction: Liu Weixin. Styling: Liu Jun. Action: An Wande, Wang Fei. Sound: Wu Ming, Zhang Shixue. Visual effects: A Shan. Executive direction: Zhang Dan.
Cast: Duan Yihong (Zhao Xudong), Yu Nan (Xiao Hong), Wang Jingchun (Xu Feng), Cheng Taishen (Cheng Fei), Yu Ailei (Jiu), Lu Peng (Li Yi, mine owner), Zhang Chunnian (Wang Sanbai, mine’s saftey officer), Yang Dong (Liao Yan, mine’s lab technician), Dong Wenteng (Wang, police officer), Sun Yuhan (Cheng Yun, Cheng Fei’s son), Zheng Chuyi (apprentice), Zhang Jinming (Zhang, police chief).
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival (Closing Film), 25 Jun 2017.
Release: China, 24 Nov 2017.