People are forced to celebrate anniversaries of the year 1997 in China, but Yu Guowei does not have happy memories from that time (many Hong Kongers also have decidedly mixed feelings about it). That year, the factory security guard tried to catch a serial killer, but his plan misfires badly in screenwriter-director Dong Yue’s The Looming Storm (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.
Essentially, Yu is the head security guard for Smelting Plant #4 someplace in the Eastern Central provinces, but he also has loss-prevention duties that earn him deferential treatment from most of his co-workers. The significance of such prevalent worker theft is largely lost on the aspiring detective. Regardless, he occasionally (and eagerly) provides auxiliary assistance to the over-worked local cops, including maintaining the perimeter around the killer’s latest body.
The victims all seem to be young women working at one of the regional factories, so it stands to reason the killer is also an industrial laborer. Nosing around, more or less on spec, he spooks a suspicious hooded figure, whom he chases all through the factory yard. The incident confirms his suspicions, but it will be a costly misadventure. Yu will have to be smarter, but he will have more time to plan, since he will be included in the massive layoffs about to sweep the district. Logically, he takes his savings to bait a trap for the killer. That would be Yanzi, a former prostitute Yu helped set up in a new respectable life. However, she is confused by the chasteness of his attention and oblivious to his ulterior motives.
Much like Explosion and Black Coal Thin Ice, Looming Storm combines film noir elements with socially conscious themes, but it is a slower build. There is no shortage of mood and atmosphere, because it rains incessantly in this unnamed center of urban decay. However, Dong somewhat confuses matters by hinting at the unreliability of Yu’s perspective, yet ultimately leaves the question hanging.
Nevertheless, Yu the striver is exactly the sort of brooding, desperate character that is totally in Duan Yihong’s wheelhouse. We always feel for him, even at the height of our skepticism. However, it is Jiang Yiyan who really lowers the boom as the marginalized but dignified Yanzi. Role for role and scene for scene, Jiang might just be the best actress working today. With respects to Looming, she doesn’t just steal the picture, she makes it.
It is hard to go wrong with a film noir that has this much rain. The provincial, soon-to-be-post-industrial setting definitely heightens the vibe of danger and alienation. It starts slow and ends somewhat too ambiguously, but it still pays off handsomely, thanks to the perfectly cast leads. Recommended for fans of Chinese noir, The Looming Storm screens tomorrow night (7/9) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.