A simple yarn of sexual longing raised almost to a ballad level, “Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker” is a Chinese costumer that has the extra smarts to attract limited theatrical distribution beyond fest and TV bookings, which should be brisk. Though the theme is hardly new for the genre, this one has enough new wrinkles to entertain those willing to go with the semi-stylized approach.
Setting is a remote town on the banks of the Yellow River, during the early years of post-1911 Republican China. Enter handsome Niu Bao, an itinerant painter, who’s hired by the powerful Cai family to decorate its sprawling manse on the other side of the river.
The most famous fireworks manufacturer in northern China, the Cai family is now headed by Chunzhi, a 19-year-old girl who’s been raised in men’s clothes. Almost as soon as he arrives, Niu Bao starts breaking the family’s strict rules (such as silence in the household), and the severe-looking but cute Chunzhi finds things other than production schedules on her mind.
After a severe beating from Man Dihong, the family foreman who’s had his eyes on Chunzhi for some time, Niu Bao leaves town, returning later to consummate the relationship. Climax is a dangerous contest in firework-wielding skills between Niu Bao and Man Dihong for Chunzhi’s hand.
Mainland Chinese director He Ping (not to be confused with Taiwan’s Ho P’ing, helmer of “18”) first drew fest attention with his “Fistful of Dollars”-like “Swordsman in Double-Flag Town,” and there’s some of the same wild, operatic quality to parts of “Firecracker.”
Though much of the pic is shot in a beautifully controlled, burnished style reminiscent of parts of Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” he frequently opens the sluice gates with sequences of extravagant romantic imagery (backed by Zhao Jiping’s lush orchestral score) that raise the pic almost to the level of a mythic ballad.
Final firecracker contest, which climaxes with Niu Bao risking his manhood, doesn’t quite measure up to expectations and requires a leap in auds’ imaginations that many may be unprepared to make. But there’s no doubting the director’s skill at evoking character and atmosphere, from the tiniest flickers of sexual stirring by the wonderfully cast Ning Jing as Chunzhi to the charismatic playing of Wu Gang as the doggedly independent Niu Bao.
Technically, pic is top-drawer, with precise, wintry lensing of barren locations in Shanxi province, China, by cinematographer Da Ying that cries out for widescreen rather than 1.66 treatment, and a fine Dolby effects track that plays with silence and offscreen sound. English subtitles, however, are often over-colloquial, and would benefit from revision.