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Review: Saving Mr. Wu (2015)

Saving Mr. Wu

解救吾先生

China, 2015, colour, 2.35:1, 105 mins.

Director: Ding Sheng 丁晟.

Rating: 8/10.

Grittily realistic kidnapping drama seamlessly combines dialogue, performances and direction.

STORY

Beijing, the 13th day of Chinese New Year. At 01.00 in the morning, Hong Kong film star Wu (Liu Dehua) is kidnapped outside a club by men posing as policemen. (Eighteen hours and 20 minutes later, gang head Zhang Hua [Wang Qianyuan] is under interrogation by police detectives Xing Feng [Liu Ye] and Cao Gang [Wu Ruofu], who discover he has a deadline to report back to his accomplices in 90 minutes’ time, by 21.00. Zhang Hua asks to be let free if he co-operates. The police also find in his car a big bag of weapons he bought 20 days earlier on the Russian border. Zhang Hua admits he has another hostage, who was kidnapped the night before but who turned out to be an ordinary, worthless guy.) Forty-five minutes after being kidnapped, Wu arrives at a building where he meets another hostage, Xiaodou (Cai Lu). When the gang threatens to kill him, Wu offers to pay Xiaodou’s ransom as well as his own. Wu says he has RMB3 million in an account but the bank card is at his flat. Zhang Hua visits the flat and confirms this. Wu calls his trusted friend Su (Lin Xue) to withdraw the money next day and make sure that he, Wu, is still alive before handing over the money. Su contacts the police. Next day at 10.00, he visits Wu’s bank but is told he can draw out only RMB1 million; he must wait until the next day for the remaining RMB2 million. Meanwhile, Zhang Hua reveals to Wu why he needs the ransom money. He manages to evade the police during the day but, following some tip-offs from the underworld, is eventually traced to the flat of his girlfriend, Chen Chen (Li Meng). He’s later arrested on the streets and taken in for questioning. The police still have to find Wu and Xiaodou. They also learn that Zhang Hua never lets his kidnap victims live. Wu and Xiaodou learn the same from their captors, who are waiting to be contacted by Zhang Hua as pre-arranged.

REVIEW

As the clock ticks down, a kidnapped Hong Kong film star and a younger fellow hostage face death in the eyes in Saving Mr. Wu 解救吾先生, a grittily realistic crime drama set across 20 hours in wintry Beijing. After two films for Cheng Long 成龙 [Jackie Chan] (Little Big Soldier 大兵小将, 2010; Police Story 2013 警察故事2013, 2013) and two quirkier, much more personal movies (The Underdog Knight 硬汉, 2008; He-Man 硬汉2 奉陪到底, 2011), Mainland writer-director-editor Ding Sheng 丁晟, 45, brings it all together here in a more mainstream movie that’s as much about the unwritten rules between cops and criminals as it is about one chasing the other.

The film was inspired by the real-life kidnapping in Beijing, in the early hours of 3 Feb 2004, of TV actor Wu Ruofu 吴若甫 outside a bar in Sanlitun district by two men disguised as police officers. Then in his early 40s, Wu was not especially well-known and was chosen more because he was driving a BMW; the kidnappers demanded RMB2 million but Wu was rescued after 23 hours. (In the film he plays one of the investigating cops.) Ding’s script sticks closely to the details of the kidnap – staged with gruff realism on a cold night that’s entirely believable – but then has the problem of how to dramatise someone being held hostage for some 20 hours. He neatly solves it by (a) suddenly flashing forward 18 hours to the mastermind being questioned in custody, (b) having Wu held captive with a younger abductee, with whom he can interact, and (c) cutting back and forth between the two main timelines and extending the film into a mini-portrait of the city’s underworld as the police hunt for the mastermind.

Mainland cinema is not short of gruff cop movies set in the wintry north. But Ding’s film takes the genre one step further by showing that all the villain’s talk of “codes” and “rules” is actually worthless, especially when coming from the mouth of a man who has no fear of death and is capable of anything. It’s just one aspect of a strong script that takes a simple crime and manages to layer it with extra shades of meaning. Its only weakness is a complicated digression, halfway through, into an earlier kidnapping by the villain that diverts attention too much away from the main story.

The screenplay’s fractured time structure, though initially jarring with its flashing back and forth, soon settles down into a kind of rhythm, and certainly helps to maintain a sense of restless tension. But it’s the way in which the dialogue, performances and Ding’s direction combine so seamlessly that really powers the movie. The early interrogation scenes of the mastermind (locked up in a chair like some diabolical serial killer) are especially gripping, with the captive rather than the police leading the whole process. A later sequence (actually earlier in time) when he’s followed through the cold night streets and finally arrested by the roadside is equally tense and atmospheric, with the criminal carrying guns and a grenade and the police knowing that one mistake could blow them all sky high.

As the villain who has absolutely no moral compass, hatchet-faced character actor Wang Qianyuan 王千源, 43 – the accordionist in The Piano in a Factory 钢的琴, 2010; the older, ambitious colleague in Brotherhood of Blades 绣春刀, 2014 – is simply superb, lecturing the police on “principles” while cold-heartedly fulfilling his broader plan. In a film of strong performances by bigger names, Wang’s is the one that lingers, defining the whole drama.

As the kidnapped Hong Kong film star, Liu Dehua 刘德华 [Andy Lau] is strong without dominating the film, especially in scenes with Cai Lu 蔡鹭 as the younger, more scared captive and in exchanges with Hong Kong’s Lin Xue 林雪 [Lam Suet] as his trusted friend. As in A Simple Life 桃姐 (2011), Liu, now in his mid-50s, reaches down more deeply here, and in a more subtle way, than in many of his more overtly “serious” movies (like, say, Lost and Love 失孤, 2015), providing a quiet courage for his co-captive to aspire to. Ding regular Liu Ye 刘烨 is fine as one of the investigating cops, without being stretched in any way, and pairs well with Wu (who’s often played cops on TV) as his partner. In smaller roles, veteran Zhao Xiaorui 赵小锐 is spot on as their pragmatic boss, while Yu Ailei 余皑磊 is notable as the smartest (and most singleminded) of the captors.

Ding’s regular crew turns in a strong technical package, from the chilly, desaturated photography of Beijing and its environs in winter by d.p. Ding Yu 丁豫 (largely hand-held, though not over-jittery) to Ding Sheng’s own restless editing. Throughout, the kidnappee is referred to only as “Wu”, though the character used is the homonym 吾, not the 吴 of Wu Ruofu’s name. In China the film was easily the most successful of Ding’s non-Cheng Long productions, even though it grossed only a so-so RMB196 million.

CREDITS

Presented by Beijing Going Zoom Media (CN), Shanghai New Culture Media (CN), Heyi Pictures (CN), Beijing Skywheel Entertainment (CN). Produced by Beijing Going Zoom Media (CN), Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau (CN).

Script: Ding Sheng. Photography: Ding Yu. Editing: Ding Sheng. Music: Lao Zai [Loudboy]. Art direction: Feng Ligang. Costumes: Cao Yangui. Styling: Wang Yi. Sound: Chen Chen. Action: He Jun. Car stunts: Luo Lixian [Bruce Law]. Visual effects: Liu Jun (Daysview Digital Image).

Cast: Liu Dehua [Andy Lau] (Wu), Liu Ye (Xing Feng, CID deputy head), Wu Ruofu (Cao Gang, CID deputy head), Wang Qianyuan (Zhang Hua, gang leader), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Su, businessman), Zhao Xiaorui (Zhang Guozheng, CID head), Li Meng (Chen Chen, Zhang Hua’s girlfriend), Lu Peng (Li Jiehui, CID Section Five head), Cai Lu (Xiaodou), Na Wei (Cheng, film investor), Yu Ailei (Cang, smart kidnapper), Xu Yang (Guo, detective), Gong Chengqi (Wei), Wang Zheng (Chao, detective), Li Longjun (Sun Shengli), Ma Sichun (Liu Yun), Zhong Yi (Zhong Wenwen), Sang Ping (Wei), Guo Mingyu (Da Qing), Chen Xingyu (Dong), Liu Wenbo (Da Long), Zhang Dong (Qiang), Yan Xiang (Kong Laoda, older Kong brother), Liu Di (Kong Lao’er, younger Kong brother), Chen Jiuhan (Gang), Zha Ka (Bo), Wang Yao (Su’s wife), Wang Xiaoliang (Liang).

Premiere: Silk Road Film Festival, Fuzhou, China, 26 Sep 2015.

Release: China, 30 Sep 2015.