When it rains it pours in “The Looming Storm,” an atmospheric Chinese crime noir set primarily in a sodden and dying industrial town in 1997. Focused on a factory security boss whose life unravels when he becomes involved in the hunt for a serial killer, this moody item is an engrossing character study with potent commentary on the monumental social and economic changes in recent Chinese history, but it’s less successful in bringing its mystery elements to a satisfying conclusion. Still, there’s plenty here to suggest first-time feature director-writer Dong Yue could be a talent worth watching. “Storm” will be released in China on Nov. 17, following its world premiere in competition at the Tokyo Film Festival.
Though the bulk of the story takes place in 1997 — significantly the year of the Hong Kong handover and when China began closing unprofitable state-owned factories — it’s 2008 when we first meet Yu Guowei (Duhan Yihong). On the day he’s released from a 10-year jail term, Yu is required to spell his name for prison officials. By selecting the meanings of alternate tonal expressions of the Chinese characters that make up his name, Yu retitles himself as “unnecessary remnant of a glorious nation.” His identification as a casualty of China’s modernization informs everything that follows, and raises the immediate question of whether he’s a murderer or if his time behind bars was the result of other transgressions.
In 1997, Yu is the self-important security chief of Smelting Plant No. Four, an aging hunk of metal on the outskirts of a drab, unnamed provincial town. In his acceptance speech as winner of the plant’s Model Worker Award, Yu talks about “living a meaningful life in a new century with head held high.”
When not catching employees guilty of petty theft and being flattered by his fawning assistant, Xiao Liu (Zheng Wei), Yu fancies himself as a real detective. Following the grisly murders of three young women, he spots an opportunity for advancement and latches on to veteran cop Captain Zhang (Du Yuan).
With Zhang and his dismissive deputy Li (Zheng Chuyi) doing things by the book, Yu figures he’ll crack the case on his own. In true genre tradition, this initially involves asking a dance hall hooker about suspicious men, followed by a deadly chase sequence in a rail-switching yard.
So far so good as a murder mystery, and things get more interesting as Yu’s personal life comes to light. Yanzi (Jiang Yiyan) is a kind-hearted prostitute who’s been able to open a legitimate beauty salon thanks to Yu’s generosity. Affixed to her mirror is a postcard of Hong Kong, where she dreams of moving with Yu. In an intriguing set of developments, it becomes clear that Yu, who’s unattached, has never done more than slow dance with Yanzi and is using her as bait for the killer.
All indicators point to a juicy finale, but Dong’s screenplay fumbles in the final furlong. As Yu’s dangerous plan begins to unravel, there’s s strong sense that some of what’s come before may be a figment of his imagination, or at least an embellishment of the truth. With smarter scripting, this might have resulted in a gripping climax, but the wrap-up is a rushed and murky let-down from the tightly controlled and very well performed psychological crime drama that’s preceded it.
With rain incessantly tumbling down and barely a moment when primary colors are seen in the film’s 1997-set segments, “Storm” sends a strong visual message that the dreams and self-perceptions of many inhabitants of this old gray town are being washed away by the tide of change. That feeling is heightened by a soundtrack consisting of rumbling industrial noise and moody electronic pieces by composer Ding Ke.