SAVAGE (2019) review


The feature debut of screenwriter Cui Siwei, whose recent output includes films as different as the subpar Jackie Chan vehicle Bleeding Steel and Huang Bo’s own fine directing debut The Island, Savage follows Wang Kanghao (Chang Chen) and Han Xiaosong (Li Guangjie), two police detectives in a small snow-swept town at the foot of Baekdu Mountain, both vying for the affections of local doctor Sun Yan (Ni Ni). One day, the two cops’ routine is disrupted by the daring theft of an armored truck’s whole shipment of gold bullions. Their confrontation with the perpetrators (Liao Fan, Zhang Yicong and Huang Jue) leaves Han dead and Wang full of guilt – and a thirst for revenge.

With moody narration by Chang Chen, a brutally spectacular heist scene involving an avalanche of tree trunks, and the rugged chemistry of Chang and Li Guangjie, all the way to their fateful encounter with the the trio of of robbers, Savage is gripping, both tense and atmospheric. Then, as we jump a year later, atmosphere takes precedence and tension a back seat. There’s an unforgiving edge to the film’s first half-hour that is unfortunately replaced afterwards by a more mundane series of skirmishes and double-crosses, never building much steam, and with the talented Ni Ni thrown in for little more than potential collateral damage. The villains are an uneven trio: after gratingly overacting his way through Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man, Liao Fan is excellent here as the stoney, wily and pragmatic leader, but he’s flanked by the forgettable Zhang Yicong as a stereotypical ‘brash younger brother’, and Huang Jue whose character Cui Siwei seemingly didn’t decide whether he’s an idiot or a psychopath. But Liu Hua steals scenes as a poacher navigating both sides for survival. Snowy landscapes can never hurt a film, especially a thriller: their stark beauty are a canvas on which violence becomes calligraphy, the immaculate white slashed with the red of spilt blood, the black of lone footsteps or of the snaky tracks of a car out of control. In this respect, Savage is often gorgeous to look at, sometimes trading excitement for poetry, as in a drawn-out stalking scene between Chang Chen and Liao Fan in snowy, windswept high grass.

Long Story Short: Savage is a solid and visually gorgeous directing debut, that unfortunately oscillates too much between brutal thrills and windswept poetry. ***

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