At the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival, the awards for Best Artistic Contribution and Best Actor went to the Chinese film The Looming Storm. Helmed by cinematographer turned director Dong Yue, and starring Duan Yihong, the title of the film refers to the 2008 Chinese winter storms, though one could be forgiven for mistaking the title as a reference to rain, since the film is set in an industrial town where it always seems to be raining.
The Looming Storm plays upon the amateur sleuth tradition to tell the story of a security guard who becomes involved in the investigation of a murder—multiple murders, actually. To slap this movie with the “serial killer” sub-genre tag would be a slight misrepresentation, however, because The Looming Storm unfolds as more of a character study about a man obsessed with solving a crime that is much bigger than him. In this respect, the film that it is perhaps most reminiscent of is Zodiac, director David Fincher’s 2007 anti-mystery about a San Francisco cartoonist who got caught up in the Zodiac Killer case.
FILM REVIEW OF 'THE LOOMING STORM'
When we first meet Yu Guowei, the film’s main character, played by Yihong, he is only visible from the back of the head. From this vantage point, we hear as he is forced to break down the meaning of his name, specifying that it is made up of the Chinese characters for “remnants,” “nation,” “glorious,” and “unnecessary.” On this last word, the camera finally cuts around to where we can see his face looking right at us, like a character out of a Jonathan Demme movie.
Soon the film flashes back to 1997, the year China regained sovereignty of Hong Kong. Here we meet a younger Yu, who, as head of security at a factory, has never met a theft he could not solve. A devoted junior colleague refers him as “Maestro;” real homicide detectives refer him to derisively as “Detective Yu” for the way he tries to insinuate himself into their investigation after a body is found outside the factory. They will give him a ride, but when the car gets stuck in the mud, they will also sit tight while ordering him to get out and push.
Moments like these establish Yu as a pitiable yet sympathetic character, one who inhabits life’s periphery, all the while striving for relevance. Yihong gives an extremely affecting performance as a man nipping at the heels of legitimacy, desperate to “live a meaningful life,” as he puts it. For all his well-meaning sincerity, however, Yu is also imbued with a streak of self-importance that borders on self-delusion. He can help a prostitute, played by Jiang Yiyan, improve her circumstances, but when it comes to his own sad lot in life, he can only tell himself it is “better to be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion.”
THE COST OF BLIND OBSESSION
The Looming Storm has such an absorbing plot that for a while we find ourselves going along with Yu. This is a man who cannot always see what is right in front of him. Some of the film’s twists are predictable, but they inform Yu’s character in necessary ways. His own carelessness costs him and others dearly, and in the end, the obsession he nurtures with catching the killer (and thereby proving his own worth) comes at the expense his closest relationships.
While accepting the Best Actor award at the closing ceremony for the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival, Yihong noted the similarity between his moment on stage that evening and a scene in the film where Yu receives a commendation as a factory worker, only to have his speech interrupted by a malfunctioning snow machine. There are hints that said scene may, in fact, be a dream sequence, yet it is integrated into the film so seamlessly that it is as if Yu himself is not always able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
There are really only two moments in The Looming Storm where the execution falls short of perfect. Both of these moments offer sensationalistic plot beats that feel more manipulative than organic to the story.
INFLUENCES ON 'THE LOOMING STORM'
The film does provide more resolution than Zodiac did, but by the end, that resolution has almost become an afterthought. A foot chase through the rain, where the killer gets the drop on Yu without ever showing his face, also calls to mind Fincher’s Seven; and there is one bit at the end that subtly evokes No Country for Old Men, as well. These may seem like lofty comparisons, but director Dong Yue is clearly aiming high. At a press conference for The Looming Storm, he cited a pair of classic films as his chief influences.
“In learning or studying about the film,” he said, “two films really influenced me. One is Hitchcock's Vertigo from the ’60s, and another is Coppola’s Conversation from 1974. From these two films, I learned a lot about how to express the psychology of the characters, or how to tell the story.”
The Looming Storm shows a lot of promise for a first-time director. As a character drama wrapped in the skin of a crime thriller, the film is magnificently staged. No U.S. release date is set, so for now, best to keep this one on your radar as one of those hidden gems of Asian cinema. Who knows, maybe it will continue its awards march all the way to the Oscars as China’s submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category next year.