‘Full River Red’ Review: Zhang Yimou’s Chinese Smash Is an Epic Historical Whodunnit Filled With Twists

Superstars Shen Teng and Jackson Yee make for a dynamic double act as mismatched soldiers attempting to solve a murder in this slickly executed mystery-comedy from the Chinese master filmmaker.

Full River Red

Murder, treachery and political intrigue are the juicy ingredients of Zhang Yimou’s “Full River Red,” an entertaining if overlong mystery-comedy set in the narrow passageways and dark chambers of a Song dynasty military compound in 1146. With a twist-packed plot to match its labyrinthine location, Zhang’s fast-paced film motors along nicely as an engaging “Knives Out”-style whodunnit before stumbling a little in the protracted final act. A Lunar New Year smash hit in China, “Full River Red” will be released on 150 North American screens by specialty distributor Niu Vision Media on March 17. 

The biggest commercial success of Zhang’s distinguished 35-year career, “Full River Red” has already grossed a whopping $671 million at home since Jan. 22. The 157-minute blockbuster continues the string of hits (“Cliff Walkers,” “Shadow,” “Sniper”) he’s delivered since big-budget international co-production misfire “The Great Wall” in 2016. Much less ornately decorated and colorfully photographed than Zhang’s famous wuxia epics “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero,” this intricately plotted outing is more concerned with wordplay than swordplay.

Though the film’s fervently patriotic finale won’t play as well internationally as on the Mainland, this smartly assembled package should still generate strong word of mouth for its devilishly complex story, funny shots of gallows humor and excellent performances from an all-star cast including music idol and screen heartthrob Jackson Yee (“Better Days”), and beloved comedian Shen Teng (“Moon Man”). Inspired by a lyric poem said to have been penned by heroic Song general Yue Fei, the action takes place entirely within the walls of a massive military compound where sickly Song dynasty prime minister Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin, “A Writer’s Odyssey”) has arrived for talks with rivals from neighboring Jin State.

Two hours before dawn, a visiting Jin delegate is found murdered and a critical letter in his possession has disappeared. While soldiers around him are being executed for failing in their duties, lowly middle-aged corporal Zhang Da (Shen) dodges death by spinning enough clever-sounding ideas together to convince superiors he can solve the case. The investigation becomes a double act when Qin Hui orders ambitious young officer Sun Jun (Yee) to join Zhang. Failure to find the culprits and the letter before the sun rises carries the penalty of death for Zhang, and severe humiliation and punishment at the very least for Sun.   

Playing out as a real-time thriller with daybreak serving as the ticking time-bomb, “River” neatly combines comedy and mystery as the mismatched duo search for clues. The amateur detectives are a winning combination from the outset. Yee’s steely demeanour is the ideal foil for Shen’s outstanding portrayal of a guy who seems to be a loser and a buffoon but uses his comical bluff and bluster proves to disguise a sharply analytical and strategically adroit mind. The unusual relationship between Zhang and Sun generates laughs and brings emotional weight to the tale. The younger man is actually the older man’s uncle, resulting in much merry squabbling as home truths and family issues from long ago are dragged up in the heat of their high-stakes mission.

Interrogations commence with Zither (Wang Jiayi, debuting impressively), a lithe, purple-gowned dancer who entertained the Jin official on the night he died. As soon as the feisty female tells Sun, “I’m a dancer, not a prostitute,” it becomes clear that the crime he and Zhang have been tasked to solve is one small part of a complex web of deadly political and personal intrigues that makes everyone a suspect and could result in anyone being killed at any time. Indeed, audiences may need a scorecard to keep track as a procession of apparently important characters are no sooner introduced than despatched in swift and severe order. The screenplay by Zhang and “Sniper” writer Chen Yu acknowledges the rapidly mounting body count and spiraling conspiracies with conversations between Zhang and Sun that allow viewers to at least keep a reasonable handle on the state of play as the compound becomes crowded with corpses.  

While the first half is frequently comedic, the emphasis shifts strongly to suspense and hard-boiled drama as the clock winds down and the widescreen palette of cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (“House of Flying Daggers” and many more Zhang films) subtly changes from day-for-night blue to the first hints of daytime amber. Just as concerned with staying alive as with flushing out the guilty parties, Zhang and Sun become engaged in gripping games of bluff and counter-bluff with a large and impressive gallery of sinister types. To this end, the film is very well served by Zhang Yi (“Cliff Walkers”) as He Li, the prime minister’s second-in-command; Yue Yunpeng as smiling schemer Wu Yichin; and Xu Jingya as Sapphire, a mute female attendant of the prime minister with eye-catching prowess for close combat with deadly weapons. 

As entertaining as all these red herrings, double-crosses and triple whammies are, the final act drags a little with a few too many last-minute twists. A large-scale set-piece involving massed Song soldiers and a rousing call for national pride will mean different things to different viewers. That said, the film’s primary mission is unquestionably to entertain as an engrossing mystery-comedy-thriller, and it achieves that aim in fine style.

The drama is wonderfully punctuated by music and songs. As drone footage shows Sun and Zhang racing through narrow passageways en route to interrogating the next suspect, composer Han Hong fills the soundtrack with folk tunes sped up to Ramones-like chainsaw tempo and performed with screeching punk-style vocals. The ear-splitting warblings are backed by arrangements varying from heavy industrial to thumping hardcore electronica that would wake the dead.

‘Full River Red’ Review: Zhang Yimou’s Chinese Smash Is an Epic Historical Whodunnit Filled With Twists

Reviewed online, March 13, 2023. Running time: 157 MIN. (Original title: “Man jiang hong”)

  • Production: (China) An Emperor Motion Pictures, Edko (in China), Niu Vision Media (in U.S.) release of a Huanxi Media Group, Yixie (Qingdao) Pictures, Beijing Lifeng Culture Development, Tianjin Maoyan Weying Media, Beijing Enlight Pictures, China Film Co., Beijing FunAge Pictures, Beijing R.molle (cq) Culture Media, MetaWay Art & Technology presentation of a Huanxi Media Group, Yixie (Qingdao) Pictures production. (International sales: Edko Films, Hong Kong.) Producer: Pang Liwei. Executive producers: Pang Liwei, Liang Yu, Li Lin, Fu Ruoqing, Jiang Yuxia.
  • Crew: Director: Zhang Yimou. Screenplay: Zhang, Chen Yu. Camera: Zhao Xiaoding. Editor: Li Yongyi. Music: Han Hong.
  • With: Shen Teng, Jackson Yee, Zhang Yi, Lei Jiayin, Wang Jiayi, Yue Yunpeng, Xu Jingya, Pan Binlong, Yu Ailei, Guo Jingfei, Ou Hao. (Mandarin, sign language dialogue)