An above-average action thriller set in the snow-covered environs of Baekdu Mountain on the China-North Korea border, “Savage” marks a confident directing debut for Chinese screenwriter Cui Siwei (“The Island”). This no-nonsense affair about a dogged detective squaring off with a trio of vicious crooks packs plenty of excitement and visual splendor into a familiar scenario, and is well performed by a top-notch cast including Chang Chen (“The Assassin”) and Liao Fan (“Black Coal, Thin Ice”). Another example of China’s increasing ability to produce slick commercial fare with broad international appeal, “Savage” opened strongly in local cinemas on April 30 and ought to perform credibly in North America when released by Well Go USA on May 3.
Produced by veteran hitmaker and frequent John Woo collaborator Terence Chang (“Hard-Boiled,” “Reign of Assassins”), “Savage” shared the New Currents Award (given to best first or second film) at Busan with the South Korean psychodrama “Clean Up” — a notable feat considering Cui’s screenplay contains virtually none of the social or political complexity usually associated with Chinese films that make waves at festivals. The name of the game here is stylish execution of a simple and fast-paced plot that contains sufficient character development and emotional weight to keep viewers involved.
The closest we get to anything deep and meaningful is in the opening voiceover narration by Wang Kanghao (Chang Chen), a detective posted to a desolate town in the shadow of Baekdu Mountain, a peak with deep spiritual significance for many Koreans. Describing a place that’s fallen into decline since logging of nearby forests was banned, Wang says, “I never saw those good times.” Instead, the mild-mannered cop is left to round up outlaw loggers with work buddy Han Xiaosong (Li Guangjie) and compete with him for the affections of Sun Yan (Ni Ni, “The Flowers of War”), a dedicated local doctor in line for a transfer to Beijing.
Wang’s scene-setting observations are interrupted by a terrific set piece in which an armored truck loaded with gold and a police escort vehicle are sent plummeting from a treacherous mountain road by an avalanche of massive logs. Perpetrators of the ambush are granite-faced crime boss Damao (Liao Fan), his cocky, bleach-blond kid brother Ermao (Zhang Yicong), and psychopathic sidekick Zhang (Huang Jue, “Long Day’s Journey into Night”).
After witnessing Han’s death at the hands of the robber trio during a random encounter, Wang assumes the time-honored role of a vengeance-obsessed lone wolf that won’t obey rules or listen to reason until the lowlifes that killed his pal are made to pay. Wang’s chance arrives when Damao’s crew return to the area to move the hidden loot before a deadly blizzard sets in. Cui’s taut screenplay alternates between Wang’s relentless pursuit of Ermao and Zhang, and a mountain resort where Damao is holding Sun hostage. A winning wild card in the mix is Guo San (Liu Hua), a grizzled old guide who turns traitor while supposedly helping Wang find his prey.
Taking his cues from Westerns of classical and spaghetti varieties, Cui keeps things interesting with shifting allegiances, double-crosses and an abundance of suspenseful stalkings, shootings, and fistfights in sub-zero temperatures. The spoonful of warmth required to maintain viewers’ emotional investment in the tale is delivered by Wang and Sun’s appealing slow-burn romance.
Stylishly filmed in widescreen by Du Jie (“The Wasted Times”) and briskly edited by Du Yuan, “Savage” features outstanding visual effects that make it impossible to spot where the real blizzard stops and the computer-generated one begins. All other technical aspects are first-class.