Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Bravest: Rewriting the History of the Xingang Oil Disaster

In today’s China, the bridges collapse, the mines cave-in, schools crumble if you lean against the walls, and nobody really knows what that mystery Wuhan virus is. The poor pigs had it even worse. At least there is no shortage of work for emergency responders. Several squads of grimly resolute fire-fighters grapple with a catastrophic blaze in Tony Chan’s The Bravest, which releases today on digital.

Bizarrely, this film is based on a real-life incident the Chinese Communist Party did its best to suppress, but the raging flames engulfing the Xingang oil refinery port were difficult to sweep under the rug. After censoring the news and strong-arming eye-witnesses into deleting their social media posts, the powers-that-be finally opted to turn the whole cluster-meltdown into a rah-rah propaganda film, which Sony has acquired for American distribution.

Jiang Liwei was the youngest squad commander in greater metro-“Bingang,” until his cockiness led to a death at a fire scene. Busted down in rank and transferred to the burbs, Jiang is a man in need of redemption. He will have a chance when the interconnected refinery tanks (and a couple of toxic chemical silos thrown in for good measure) erupt in flames, due to the negligence of a tanker captain. He would be the one listed in the credits as “Western Scapegoat.”

Suddenly, Jiang is battling the blaze, alongside Ma Weiguo, his former lieutenant and current chop-busting nemesis. Of course, the longer they hold the line together, the more they come to respect each other.

Honestly, Wang Chao’s screenplay is so manipulative, it is often embarrassing to watch. When we see Jiang’s disgrace has strained his relationship with his bratty son, we know with certainty he is a dead man walking. Likewise, when fire inspector Wang Lu continues to cold-shoulder her frogman fiancé Xu Xiaobin during the disaster, we can tell he is a talking corpse.

It should be readily stipulated there are some tremendous special effects and stunt work involving fire, but it gets a bit repetitive at times. Still, that is the best The Bravest can offer. As for the characterization, it is pretty thin stuff. It is mostly stereotypes, like “the rookie” and “the worried wife.” Even Jiang is basically a cardboard cut-out.

Best of all, the film pays off with the surviving fire-fighters repledging their loyalty to the Communist Party. Again, you have to wonder why Sony thought there would be a market for naked CCP propaganda in America—or maybe you don’t. A little patriotism is fine, but Bravest is particularly problematic, because it takes a very real incident, in which pubic safety and the coastal environment were endangered by the government’s censorship and stone-walling, portraying it as the exact opposite of what really happened. Yet, in a way, that might make The Bravest truly a film for our times. Not recommended, The Bravest releases today on digital.