Yimou Zhang, the great Fifth Generation Chinese auteur and director of “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), “Hero” (2002), “House of Flying Daggers” (2004), “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” (2009) and the Matt Damon-starring (also with Pedro Pascal) “The Great Wall” (2016), sets his sights on the Song Dynasty and a patriotic poem attributed to the real-life Chinese hero General Yue Fei.
In “Full River Red,” a film that has made a fortune in its homeland, Zhang brings a piece of Chinese history to life in the form of a sometimes comedic drama, featuring enough court intrigue to choke a dragon.
Set almost entirely within the walls of a large brick and mortar collection of large stone buildings and homes separated by cobblestone walkways and courtyards, the film plays out like a medieval game of Chinese chess. Set in the 12th century, the story starts with traditional-sounding strings and drums, captions identifying the characters and a young woman using sign language who turns out to be the bodyguard of the prime minister of Song (Jiayin Lei). The first of many throats is slit. The colors on the screen are muted, except for lipstick and blood. A prisoner named Zhang Da (a likable Teng Shen), who is given a pass by the prime minister, promises to get to the bottom of a mystery involving the murder of emissaries from the enemy army of the Jin.
If you thought “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” was hard to follow (and utterly pointless), hold on to your popcorn, “Full River Red” is going to twist you into historical knots. Notably, the “brave and resourceful” Zhang Da refers to Commander Sun as “Uncle,” even though the commander is considerably younger. Cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao (“House of Flying Daggers”) renders the medieval setting in crystal-clear imagery.
Occasionally, the subtitles contain anachronisms such as “totally screwed” or “paranoid.” We hear a poem by the recently deceased Gen. Yue Fei recited by the prime minister from his balcony and repeated by the vast army just outside the compound. It is entitled “Full River Red” and it speaks of recovering “lost lands” and soldiers of the homeland “drinking the blood” of their enemies. These are somewhat reactionary sentiments from the three-times-Oscar-nominated Zhang, who has an honorary doctorate from Boston University and previously quietly seeded his films with liberal ideas, such as women’s rights. Teng and Yee make a fine duo with at times violent camaraderie, and it would be nice to see them teamed again in a film with less political and historical baggage. A “House of Flying Daggers 2” would be nice.
‘FULL RIVER RED’
Grade: 3 stars (out of 4)
(In Mandarin with English subtitles)
Running time: 2:37
How to watch: Now in theaters