While Western cinema all too often equates film noir with retro pastiche and period fare, Chinese filmmakers continue to sustain the genre in bracingly contemporary, socially relevant ways — often sneaking a wealth of political and economic commentary past censors and straight into their sleek underworld narratives. Zhang Ji’s remarkable debut feature, “Fire on the Plain,” follows in this rich tradition: On the surface, it’s a grand, expansive yarn meshing cool policier with heated boy-meets-girl melodrama, but it’s made special by the detailed social textures of its turn-of-the-millennium setting in the country’s impoverished, industrial Northeast. A collective sense of yearning for other lives and other options runs through the well-oiled mechanics of the plot, elevating this San Sebastian competition standout from merely compelling to truly stirring.
Former cinematographer Zhang is best known for his work on Zhang Bingjian’s “North by Northeast,” and this is about as fully formed as first features come — matching the technical finesse you might expect, given his background, to real storytelling brio. If “Fire on the Plain” (it’s in no way connected to Kon Ichikawa’s classic war film “Fires on the Plain”) occasionally recalls the work of current Chinese noir standard-bearer Diao Yinan in its blend of hard-boiled pulp and hardscrabble realism, that’s not exactly a coincidence: Diao is credited here as an executive producer, and his name ought to boost international interest in the film as it continues through the festival circuit.
On home turf, meanwhile, “Fire on the Plain” has plenty going for it already. Young leads Zhou Dongyu (star of the Oscar-nominated Hong Kong sensation “Better Days”) and Liu Haoran (of the hit “Detective Chinatown” franchise) are proven box office commodities, while the film is adapted from a locally popular novel, Shuang Xuetao’s “Moses on the Plain.” Unusually, Shuang is involved in the production not as a screenwriter but as an art director: Certainly the evocation of an ailing factory town in Jilin province in the late ’90s and early 2000s, streets marked with the scars and squalor of long-term state neglect and imminent financial crisis, feels vividly recalled and authentically researched.
Structurally, the perspective-shifting back-and-forth of the novel has been disentangled into something more linear — bisected by one critical time gap — though the story remains a sprawling affair. We begin in the winter of 1997: The weather is bitter, factories are shutting down, and an at-large serial killer is targeting taxi drivers in the area. Amid this pile-on of suffering, gifted working-class teen Li Fei (Zhou) is unsurprisingly desperate to escape to the south, where she might face brighter prospects than her father, recently laid off from his factory job, ever has.
In her quest for self-improvement, she takes lessons from a kindly, wealthier neighbor, whose sullen teenage son, Shu (Liu), gradually takes a shine to her. Young love blooms in the cracks of the urban concrete, though Shu comes with a lot of baggage: not least that he’s being drawn by an undercover detective into police investigations over the cabbie killer. Eight years later, Li Fei and Shu’s lives have drastically diverged — he’s a cop; she’s gone off the rails — though the now-cold case brings them together once more.
Things get considerably more convoluted from there, though never dully so, as the film’s sustained whodunit angle is complemented by the human tension in Li Fei and Shu’s strangely magnetic, destructive relationship. The stars’ immediate, hot-to-the-touch chemistry is vital, persuasively pushing the story through its most contrived patches. But it’s Zhou who gets most mesmerizingly showcased, as she completes a full, exhaustive arc from hopeful child to wounded, real-world femme fatale, never out of her element at any stage in the transition. International stardom surely awaits.
As for Zhang, it’s easy to imagine that there’s plenty more where this gutsy, formally confident debut came from. Upscale genre fare that’s both commercially viable and festival-friendly is a tricky compromise, and he’s found it in his first time at bat, while every element of the production works toward that same sweet spot. Zhiyuan Chengma’s lensing is muscular and unfussy, though it sometimes pulls tableaux of soaring beauty out from the rubble, while the score by Russian Euro-art-house fixtures Evgueni and Sacha Galperine (“Loveless,” “Happening”) mixes mournful ambient symphonics with clipped, metallic electro. It’s entirely the right sonic balance for a thriller that aims to grab us by the heart and throat at the same time. We invest in the characters’ swooning dreams of escape, but we can’t take our eyes off their ugly reality.