Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mainland Noir: Lethal Hostage

It is maybe the most extreme case of Stockholm Syndrome ever, but it happens in Burma. Yes, even Chinese films still call it Burma, not Myanmar. No matter what you call it, the area along the Chinese border is a lawless domain and the neighboring Chinese city of Ruili is a classic border town. Crimes from the dark past will directly affect the lawless present in Cheng Er’s Lethal Hostage (trailer here), which screens as part of the Mainland Noir film series now underway at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Sun Honglei plays “350,” a steely drug cartel lieutenant with ambitions of advancement. Need we go any further? Using a fractured narrative structure, Cheng kicks things off with two seemingly unrelated events that turn out to be profoundly linked. Xiao An visits her life-battered dentist father asking him to bless her marriage, but he bitterly refuses. Meanwhile, a young woman becomes suspicious of her neighbor, because something in his flat makes her dog Feng Feng bark like crazy. Poor Feng Feng will stir up a whole lot of trouble for himself and his owner, who happens to be the hot mess sister of the narcotics detective pursuing the neighbor’s boss.

Rewind ten years and we see 350 taking the dentist’s young daughter hostage after a drug deal goes spectacularly bad. It will be the start of a long string of misfortunes for the distraught father. However, Xiao An somehow brings out 350’s compassionate side. He will even stage a cartel coup to protect her. Of course, the machinations of fate will pull them all back to Ruili in the present time.

Lethal Hostage is an inadequate title to describe the gritty ruthlessness and tragic irony of Cheng’s narrative, but so be it. In many ways, it would be a fine companion film paired up with Johnnie To’s Drug War, which is high praise indeed. It all fits together nicely, but the scenes set in the sister’s apartment building are especially tense, in the tradition of Wait Until Dark.

Of course, Sun is superhumanly hardnosed as 350. Watching him stalk through Burma makes us believe he could knock birds out of the sky with a withering stare. Wang Luodan is affectingly earnest and vulnerable as his grown wife, while Gao Ye covers the spectrum, from passive aggressive party girl to an utterly terrified hostage herself. However, veteran character actor Ni Dahong really delivers the pathos as the woeful dentist.

Cheng does a lot of flashing backwards and forwards, but he always clearly establishes his place on the timeline. There are plenty of twists, but even more attitude and menace. It also obliquely recalls recent shoddy public works construction scandals, particularly the school collapses during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when a similar fate befalls a school 350 funded on behalf of his wife, which is pretty gutsy on Cheng’s part. Very highly recommended, Lethal Hostage screens this Thursday (2/22) and next Sunday (2/25) at the Yerba Buena Arts Center, as part of their Mainland Noir film series.