Awards “Season” is such an exhausting, never-ending cycle that I fear I’m breaking a sensitive taboo just by speaking its name so soon after this year’s ritual “concluded”. Any sane, sensible person should not be saying the word “Oscars” for at least another seven months. I promise that there is a point to the transgression, though, as I’ve noticed a couple immediate benefits to surviving this year’s Awards Season gauntlet, mostly due to the sweeping wins of the Daniels’ sci-fi action comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once. First, EEAAO is back in theaters again, and as much as its online fandom & Awards Season success makes it seem like a cultural juggernaut, it’s only been during this post-Oscars push that the its box office profits have finally surpassed the grim superhero origin story Morbius – a film sincerely enjoyed by no one. Even better, the Oscars marketing machine has also cleared some space for a wider cultural appreciation of Michelle Yeoh, who is currently both the subject of a Criterion Channel sub-collection of Hong Kong action classics and the inspiration for a theatrical re-release of the early-aughts Oscar contender Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I bring that up not only because it’s worth celebrating, but because in its own post-Oscars glow (landing four wins out of nine nominations) Crouching Tiger also cleared space for a wider range of genre cinema at the suburban multiplex, proving this post-EEAAO bump is no fluke.
In particular, I remember the post-Crouching Tiger marketing push for wuxia martial arts cinema bringing the films of Zhang Yimou to the US, with his films Hero and House of Flying Daggers reaching a much wider international audience than they would have without Crouching Tiger‘s Oscars clearing the way. Even concurrent to Crouching Tiger‘s post-EEAAO re-release two decades later, Zhang’s latest feature is currently screening in US theaters despite most modern Chinese blockbusters of its ilk not enjoying the same international platform. Full River Red isn’t even a wuxia fantasy epic the way Zhang’s earlier successes were; it’s not even technically martial arts or action. It’s being sold abroad on the strength of Zhang’s name alone – a name built on the back of Crouching Tiger‘s international success. Looking back to those early days of Zhang Yimou buzz isn’t entirely flattering to Full River Red, since his latest is proudly exemplary of the way that modern Chinese blockbusters carry a dual duty as both populist entertainment and as state-sponsored nationalist propaganda. Its title is a reference to a rabblerousing Chinese nationalist poem that is recited at the emotional climax with near-religious reverence, ensuring that all of the preceding cheap-thrills entertainment is contextualized within service & deference to the state. That’s not any different than the rah-rah American militarism of Top Gun: Maverick, the MCU, or Michael Bay’s entire oeuvre, but it does feel like a far cry from the escapist fantasy epics Zhang Yimou used to get away with as recently as the aughts.
Before fulfilling its patriotic obligations as a pro-military poetry reading, however, Full River Red has a lot of cheeky fun as a murder mystery of covert political intrigue. Set during a 12th Century clash between warring Song & Jing Dynasties, the film opens with the murder of a traveling diplomat and the disappearance of a secret-letter MacGuffin, a small token of widespread espionage. With only a couple hours to solve the crime before dawn breaks and chaos ensues, an enigmatic Prime Minister figurehead assigns two makeshift detectives to the case: a cunning lowlife criminal turned loyal soldier and a hothead commanding officer who’s prone to killing suspects in fits of anger – creating literal dead ends in the investigation. As the initial whodunnit premise gives way to a complex political puzzle of double-triple-quadruple crossings among the infinite sea of suspects, Zhang keeps the mood light with slapstick hijinks and the stakes high with vicious, horrific violence. The walled-in fortress where the investigation plays out looks perfectly designed for close-quarters fistfights, but that’s not the genre Zhang is working in this time around. He instead uses the setting as a labyrinth redesign of a classic stage play setup, with most of the “action” being restricted to wordplay, lies, and stabbings. As actors travel from room to room, it appears they’ve gone nowhere at all, which only makes the circular murder investigation and contraband search all the more maddening as the morning light approaches.
Stylistically, Full River Red finds Zhang Yimou as sharp as ever. He’s slightly held back by a lack of urgency in the circular plotting and by a muted day-for-night color palette but, overall, he delivers a viciously amusing shell game of 12th Century political espionage – one with an absolutely killer, operatic hip-hop soundtrack. As birds-eye-view tracking shots of characters swiftly marching from room to identical room play out to electroshocked revisions of classical Chinese music, it feels like Zhang is delivering something that you can’t find anywhere else in modern cinema. If Full River Red were a little brighter and a little zippier, it could’ve been an all-timer, both in Zhang’s catalog and in the greater whodunnit canon. At the very least I would’ve appreciated a few more pops of red blood or lipstick against the metallic, stonework grays that wash over most of the screen. It’s no matter. Instead of complaining about the few ways Full River Red falls short of its ideal self, I’d rather just celebrate the fact that it made it to big-screen distribution at the AMC Westbank at all. The movie would certainly exist without the Oscars marketing machine boosting its international profile, since the Chinese movie industry is sturdy enough on its own without the influence or support of Hollywood’s own nationalist propaganda muddying the waters. I just don’t know that it would have reached me, personally, without that lingering Zhang Yimou bump in wuxia’s brief moment of Oscars glory – something that was impossible to ignore while Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was simultaneously playing on the opposite side of the Mississippi from Full River Red at AMC Elmwood.