Original title: Manjianghong | Directed by Yimou Zhang | Written by Zhang and Yu Chen | 159 min | ▲▲▲△△
Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang is a master of epic period thrillers like The Great Wall, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers, and here is again with a single-location comedy-mystery based on historical fact, with the entire film taking place over the single night.
We’re in the military fortress of the Song Dynasty circa 1146. An emissary of the enemy Jin clan has been murdered and a confidential letter they were carrying intended for Song leaders has vanished. Song prime minister Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin) instructs lowly, if cunning soldier Zhang Da (Shen Teng) to team up with his uncle in uniform, Sun Jun (Jackson Yee), to solve the mystery of the vanished letter. They need to locate it in the two hours before dawn or Zhang Da will be executed.
Zheng is a fast-talking schemer, which reduces the stakes around his possible demise, but then it’s hard to get a fix on the tone here. The film regularly dips into slapstick humour — the transition scenes scored with punky Chinese hip-hop (by composer Han Hong) as Zhang Da and Sun Jun move from one part of the compound to another to conduct their investigations are hilarious. The picture then pivots to outrageous melodrama and Shakespearean betrayals.
Keeping track of the plot developments, quintuple crosses between multiple characters spitting dialogue from a verbose script is a serious challenge, not aided at all by subtitles that frequently suffer from grammatical issues. In the end (which takes a little too long to arrive) the matter becomes clearer by the lack of people still standing — the daggers fly in this house, too.
If the implausible plot twists and shifts of character motivation render the effort a little muddy, the energy of the production and commitment of the actors help carry the day. I’m sure I missed some cultural nuance given I have no Mandarin and very little knowledge of the history, but it’s hard to grouse about a feature that ends with the celebration of a poem, read aloud by the entire cast.