China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 101 mins.
Director: Xu Bing 徐兵.
No-nonsense, tautly packaged crime drama exceeds its modest budget and unstarry casting.
Beijing, 2013. Pursued by police, gun dealer Liu Mingyi (Ren Donglin) cold-bloodedly shoots a young woman, Jia Xiaoduo (Tong Yixuan), whose boyfriend, delivery boy Xu Tian (Bai Jugang), bumped into his car with his motorbike. Liu Mingyi is cornered by the police and shot dead; Jia Xiaoduo dies as Xu Tian carries her to a hospital. Seven days later, Liu Mingyi’s wife, Yu Miao (Rayza), who had no idea her husband was involved in gun dealing, is selling their house and about to leave Beijing, having discovered she’s pregnant. Xu Tian turns up at her home demanding compensation for his girlfriend’s death; when she refuses, he takes possession of her husband’s funeral urn and forces her to take him along on the train. Xu Tian is being pressured by Jia Xiaoduo’s parents, who are unaware of her death, for RMB150,000 to build a new family house, and Yu Miao has been told by Liu Mingyi’s supplier, Ma Santan (Hong Jiantao), to pay off her husband’s RMB50,000 debt or else. Arriving in her husband’s home village outside Chongqing, central China, she delivers his ashes and Xu Tian rescues her when she’s attacked by locals. She’s then picked up by Ma Santan but can only pay him RMB10,000; Ma Santan shoots Xu Tian, beats up Yu Miao and gives her a further 12 hours to pay the remainder. Xu Tian miraculously survives his shooting and takes Yu Miao to hospital, where she learns she’s lost her baby. She tells him he’ll get the RMB150,000 he needs if he comes with her to neighbouring Yuhua village, where she intends to kill Ma Santan. Unknown to Xu Tian and Yu Miao, the police, led by the original Beijing investigator, Lian Guangkuo (Lian Yiming), have staked out the village. But that’s only the start of a long saga, in which Ma Santan’s identically named younger brother (Wang Longzheng) becomes involved as all the parties move to the city of Chongqing.
A good example of the kind of modest but well-made drama that’s more likely to end up on China Movie Channel than in cinemas nowadays, Strangers 缉枪 marks a very solid directing debut by middle-generation Mainland writer Xu Bing 徐兵, who’s worked in TV drama for almost two decades (and also contributed to the script of Hong Kong action drama Connected 保持通话, 2008). A crime drama-cum-offbeat road movie, in which two completely different people are thrown together by their partners’ sudden deaths, it sometimes strains credibility by the need to keep all its main characters together but is generally taut enough to sustain interest, with a final twist thrown in as a bonus. Its box office, though small (RMB16 million), was respectable given its lack of big names and big action, dwarfing some more high-profile failures.
The screenplay starts in mediis rebus as police follow a gun dealer, in a car with his wife, along Beijing’s Third Ring Road – a slow-burning, realistically staged pursuit that ends in sudden violence and the deaths of a delivery boy’s girlfriend and then the dealer himself. A week later, the delivery boy turns up on the widow’s doorstep, just as she’s leaving to take her husband’s ashes back to his home village, and demands compensation – the start of an odyssey that sees him sticking close to her as she’s pursued by a gun supplier who wants her husband’s debt repaid and by undercover police who want to crack the arms ring. Xu’s no-nonsense direction finds time for both introspection (as the boy and widow slowly bond) and some tense crime action (notably on a spaghetti junction near Chongqing, and during a hospital stakeout), both of which draw their drama as much from character as from the tight production. Apart from a slight dip during some extended business in a KTV club, the film is consistently absorbing, in a low-key way, from start to finish.
Though Strangers is only a moderately budgeted film, the off-screen talent shows through in small details. Xu has gathered together a top technical team, from d.p. Du Jie 杜杰 (Detective Chinatown 唐人街探案, 2015; The Wasted Times 罗曼蒂克消亡史, 2016) and composer Dou Peng 窦鹏 (whose jaunty, dance-like score actually works, especially in the final, balletic car chase) to editor Qiao Aiyu 乔爱宇 (Tiny Times 4 小时代 灵魂尽头, 2015; Dinner for Six 六人晚餐, 2016) and Hong Kong father-and-son team Luo Lixian 罗礼贤 [Bruce Law] and Luo Yimin 罗义民 [Norman Law] for the physical and car action.
Similarly, the casting, though hardly starry, is just right: from the quiet but determined widow of Beijing-born Kazakh actress Rayza 热依扎 (La Historia du un Amor 临时演员, 2017), through the dogged cop of Lian Yiming 连奕名 (an actor-director for whom Xu has written), to the never-say-die villian of Wang Longzheng 王泷正. As the delivery boy, actor-singer Bai Jugang 白举纲, 23, in his first leading role, holds his own against his older co-players while not drawing an especially sympathetic character. It’s notable how the detail in Xu’s writing percolates down even to the supporting characters, such as a policewoman credibly played by Miao Qing 苗清.
The Chinese title means “Seizing Guns”.
Presented by China Police Jindun Films & TV Culture Centre (CN), Xi’an Spring Films & TV Culture (CN), Reach Glory Media & Entertainment (CN), Haining Zhibing Studio Media (CN), Haining Wenjiu TV & Media (CN), Khorgos Spring Net Media (CN), Beijing Taikong Works Culture Development (CN), Youth Enlight Pictures (CN). Produced by Haining Wenjiu TV & Media (CN), Haining Zhibing Studio Media (CN).
Script: Xu Bing, Zhou Yiyong, Li Yuan. Photography: Du Jie. Editing: Qiao Aiyu. Music: Dou Peng. Art direction: Zhao Hai. Styling: Li Shanwei. Sound: Zhao Suchen. Action: Luo Lixian [Bruce Law]. Car stunts: Luo Yimin [Norman Law]. Visual effects: Zhang Zhao. Executive direction: Wang Bing.
Cast: Bai Jugang (Xu Tian), Lian Yiming (Lian Guangkuo, police captain), Rayza (Yu Miao), Hong Jiantao (Da Ma Santan, elder brother), Wang Longzheng (Xiao Ma Santan, younger brother), Ren Donglin (Liu Mingyi, Yu Miao’s husband), Tong Yixuan (Jia Xiaoduo), Wang Kun (driver in car crash), Qi Jie, Qi Yunpeng (policemen), Miao Qing (policewoman), Wu Mian (Liu Mingyi’s mother), Juanzi (Liu Mingyi’s sister), Cui Yue (KTV woman), Baduo, Binzi (gun dealers), Hou Chuan’gao, Bai Hongbiao (gun buyers), Hong Yuan (female gun dealer), Li Zhencheng (uncle).
Premiere: Houston Film Festival (Panorama China), 27 Apr 2017.
Release: China, 23 Jun 2017.