Saturday, November 25, 2017

Explosion: Naturalistic Noir Goes Boom

In China’s western provinces, it is every man for himself. There is no OSHA regulating mine safety. The media doesn’t report on what goes on below ground and the cops only care about playing their own angles. When Zhao Yu-dong is set up to take the fall for a blasting disaster, the smart play is to take the hush money. It is not like he would even have to worry about jail time, because nobody would dare report the incident. However, the egregiousness of the “accident” and Zhou’s hardheadedness make him go lone wolf in Chang Zheng’s Explosion (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Zhao never wanted to be a blaster, but he followed in his father’s footsteps anyway. He certainly has enough experience to know one stick of dynamite should never produce the massive conflagration that resulted. He would like to start a new life with his fiancée Xiao Hong, but only a minimal amount of investigation turns up evidence of foul play. Before he knows what hit him, Zhao finds himself in the middle of a violent feud between two mining oligarchs. Li Yi was his predatory boss, but the vengeance-seeking Cheng Fei will become his main nemesis.

Of course, Zhao cannot count on any help from the cops, especially including his opportunistic former friend Xu Feng. They have already settled on him as their prime suspect for the subsequent murders they know about—and they have still only heard vague rumors of the original blasting mishap.

Explosion is a truly subversive film, because it presents itself to be an action movie chocked full of pyrotechnics, but it simultaneously delivers some very pointed social criticism, with respect to workers rights, workplace safety, public corruption, and to a much lesser extent, the despoilment of the environment (the latter is never directly addressed, but the arid ravaged landscapes silently speak volumes). Yet, it still functions as particularly lethal film noir, most definitely in the tradition of Black Coal, Thin Ice (bad things just seem to happen in and around Chinese coal mines).

Duan Yihong is terrific as Zhao. He projects a sense of danger even when he is getting the snot beat out of him, which happens often. Probably nobody is better at playing tough but vulnerable women than Yu Nan, who shines again as Xiao. There is also a wickedly effective tag-team of villains, including Cheng Taishen as the sinister mastermind, Cheng Fei, and Yu Ailei portraying his chief fixer.

Don’t worry, Chang does not let the social realism prevent him from blowing up a bunch of stuff. The wardrobe department also deserves credit for Li Yi’s flamboyantly evil-looking blue suede boots. This is a slam-bang thriller that should not be flying so low under the radar. Very highly recommended, Explosion is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.