Yu Guowei (Duhan Yihong) is a security guard working in a rain-soaked industrial town in 1997. When a serial killer begins murdering local woman, Yu’s independent investigation becomes a personal obsession. It threatens his position at the factory where he works, as well as a growing relationship with sex worker-turned-hairdresser Yanzi (Jiang Yiyan).
The Looming Storm, produced in China in 2017 but released internationally a year later, is a stunning work of neo-noir. It is directed by first-time filmmaker Dong Yue, and is the strongest film of its kind since Diao Yinan’s superlative 2014 feature Black Coal, Thin Ice. The screenplay is rich and complex. The visuals are soaked in mud and a near-constant rain. The performances are uniformly superb. It is neck-and-neck with Hu Bo’s An Elephant Standing Still, but this is by the narrowest of margins the best Chinese film I saw last year.
The film’s muddy, dispirited tone pours off the screen like a 21st century version of Seven. Yu’s environment manages to combine industrial and agricultural backdrops to create one huge nightmarish and isolated stage upon which he stalks the elusive killer. The viewer is never freed from the aesthetic, and it inspires a growing sense of unease.
Duhan Yihong is excellent as Yu, delivering a graduated performance that begins with a somewhat jarring sense of comedy and then sinking step by step into harrowing drama. At first it seems as if his deadly cat-and-mouse game is driving him over the edge into a toxic obsession. When the plot develops further, how far Yu’s journey has been comes under question – one wonders if he was unhealthily obsessed all along. While much of his investigation works on a slow burn, violence does break out from time to time; one chase sequence through a rail yard is one of the most thrilling scenes of its kind this past year.
Jiang Yiyan’s performance as Yu’s girlfriend Yanzi benefits from clever script writing and a superb demonstration of Jiang’s talents. She brings a growing number of facets to the character, who becomes more interesting and complex as she goes. Her concluding role in the film admittedly feels like a misstep, but one that stays in keeping with the overall noir tone of the story. It is a flaw, but far from a deal breaker; subsequent scenes claw back a lot of ground.
It is the climax of the film that represents Dong’s most bravura qualities as writer and director. Spoiling the events would honestly ruin half of the joy in watching them, but what appears to be one kind of film turns out to be something more unexpected and surprising. What seemed a straight-forward violent thriller becomes an allegory for Chinese industry and the human cost of industrialization – and internationalization. To a large extent The Looming Storm‘s final act is inaccessible to non-Chinese audiences, and English-speaking viewers will benefit by approaching it with patience and extensive thinking on the way out of the theatre. The Looming Storm does not simply deliver thrills to its audience. It wants to make us work a little in return.