Given a strangely ‘80s nonsensical two word title, Xu Jizhou’s The Liquidator (心理罪：城市之光, Xīnlǐ Zuì: Chéngshì Zhī Guāng) is a retro throwback to the lurid macho pulp which has largely faded from the crime procedural since its ‘90s heyday. Adapted from a novel by Lei Mi, the film follows last year’s Guilty of Mind as the second in the Fang Mu series only this time the eccentric profiler is played by marquee star Deng Chao rather than Guilty Mind’s Li Yifeng or Chen Ruo Xuan who starred in the Fang Mu TV drama, Evil Minds. A pulpy battle of wits between a crazed vigilante and a world weary cop, The Liquidator is already treading on some overly familiar territory but its main target is the rule of law apparently under threat of mob justice now that China too has entered the social media age.
Fang Mu (Deng Chao) is no longer a police officer after becoming the prime suspect in the disappearance of a man who escaped justice through judicial corruption, but he’s pulled back into the law enforcement fold when young policewoman Mi Nan (Cecilia Liu) is dispatched to get his profiling opinion on a difficult murder case. Calling himself “The Light of the City”, a vigilante killer is already amassing a collection of dedicated online followers thanks to his choice of targets which, to put it bluntly, are not law breakers just terrible people that most would like to get revenge on for one reason or another.
Originally reluctant, Fang Mu is soon hooked on the case only to realise that the crime scenes are being created entirely for his benefit – the killer is attempting to pull him into a battle of wits and taking innocent lives to do it. As it transpires the killer’s name, Light of the City, is inspired by something Fang Mu said in his graduation speech to the effect that the police are the light that shines in the darkness. The killer thinks the law doesn’t go far enough – his targets are bullying teachers, impious sons, and greedy lawyers, the immoral rather than the criminal. He exposes their transgressions online and then allows “netizens” to have their say. Netizens, as they have often been in the “real” world, are not a particularly understanding bunch and are firmly behind the “entertainment” the killer is providing, even down to the decision to live stream a murder.
Fang Mu’s defining trait is his liminal status as a law enforcement officer often pulled towards the dark side – hence why many of his colleagues think it’s perfectly possible that he’s guilty of the crime that got him kicked off the force. The vigilante’s “plan” is to pull him over the line by forcing Fang Mu to execute The City of Light and thereby become the thing he most fears. The Liquidator posits that a robust judicial system free from interference from both government and people is a prerequisite of a well functioning society and the police must be the shining beacons of these laws – if not even law enforcement obeys the law, then all is lost.
What transpires is a battle of minds between the brainy Fang Mu and the psychotic killer, but it’s also a battle for the soul of “society” which ought to place compassion and rationality over the sensationalism of trial by media and arbitrary mob justice. The killer works out his frustrations by proxy through attacking those who committed the same “crimes” which have led to their feelings of frustration and humiliation – chief among them being Fang Mu who has, apparently, offended solely in his continued excellence, but the killer’s personal vengeance is harsh and unforgiving, handing down a death sentence simply for unpleasant or anti-social behaviour.
Beginning in a promising vein, Xu nevertheless introduces his dedicated female cop only to sideline her in favour of Fang Mu before turning her into a mild love interest, potential victim, and sometime comic relief. Filled with macho histrionics (including, at one point, a gun fired in the air followed by a manly wail of grief), The Liquidator is an old fashioned action drama filtered through pulp noir and ‘90s horror with its grimy walls and dingy basements, but it straddles a fine line between ridiculous slasher serial killer thriller and serious cerebral procedural, landing somewhere around heroic bloodshed without the bromance. Ridiculous and melodramatic, Xu’s debut feature boasts excellent production design and innovative photography, but its slick aesthetic cannot overcome the more outlandish elements of the otherwise generic script.
Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia
Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)