Great changes were afoot in China in 1997. While the rest of the continent contended with the Asian Financial Crisis, China saw the death of reformer Deng Xiaoping who had begun the business of putting the nation’s economy on a modern footing – something which was still very much in progress under the then premier, Jiang Zemin. The old unprofitable factory cities and the work unit system were on their way out, but with little in the way to replace them save the hope for a new and glorious future. The hero of Dong Yue’s debut, The Looming Storm (暴雪将至, Bào Xuě Jiāngzhì) has an unhappy destiny in that his name uses characters which could be translated as “unnecessary remnant of a glorious nation”. He, like many of his generation, is one caught out by his country’s sudden shifts and finds himself living out a fantasy, chasing at shadows and eventually destroying himself in a misdirected attempt to attack a society which has all but forgotten him.
We begin at the end – in 2008, Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong) is released from prison as a parolee, awaiting the return of his ID card and along with it his official existence as a member of society. Flashing back to 1997, Guowei is the security officer at the local factory. Having proved himself efficient in catching petty criminals thieving from the communal resources, Guowei gets himself a “model worker” commendation and the nickname “Detective Yu”. Fancying himself as a top investigator and there being very little to do in this no horse town, Guowei is, in a sense, excited when another body of a young woman turns up near the factory closely matching the pattern of other recent murders and hinting at a serial killer. Seeing as the police are short staffed in any case, the local sheriff decides to humour Guowei by allowing him to go on trying to solve the case on his own.
Guowei investigates the crime with methods he’s learned from hardboiled movies – staking out the crime scene and asking awkward questions in an illicit local disco where, it is suggested, some of the victims may have been earning money through casual sex work. He becomes obsessed with shadowy figures, faces hidden by raincoats, who lurk on the periphery anonymous and almost unseen but yet unsettling. Guowei finds and chases his quarry, only to abandon a friend in need while the suspect gets away leaving Guowei with only his shoe as a possible clue.
During his model worker speech, Guowei somewhat milks the occasion but proudly states that he intends to live a “meaningful live”. Given the depressing drudgery of his existence it’s unclear how he intends to do that, but then his “investigation” becomes his great and glorious destiny – something which will bring both meaning and acclaim to his otherwise meaningless existence. Like many of his age, Guowei has learned to be proud of his contributions to society through his work but remains unaware that the security bureau is not well respected. Everyone knows Guowei is a pure hearted sort who cannot be corrupted and pretends to respect him for it, but in reality they find him priggish and ridiculous. Unbeknownst to him to there have been many more mysterious thefts he’s never discovered because the entire factory and even his own assistant are engaged in a complex system of bribery to cover them all up.
When the factory is unceremoniously shut down, all Guowei is left with is his need to find the killer. Striking up a relationship with a pretty sex worker, Yanzi (Jiang Yiyan), who dreams of opening her own hair salon in Hong Kong – another new horizon in 1997 though one she fears she may never see, Guowei perhaps has another shot at building a “meaningful life” but rejects it, suppressing his natural desires for his obsessive pursuit in deciding to use his new muse as bait. Time and again, Guowei backs away from the reality, unwittingly sacrifices friends and lovers in service to his self created narrative in which he is a hero seeking justice whose victory is all but assured. Having discovered the truth, Yanzi’s eyes are opened – she has woken up from the beautiful dream of a possible future while Guowei is still boyishly dreaming of becoming a hero in an unheroic world.
Dong paints the industrial factory town in tones of washed out browns and greys as the rain falls without end, muddying the streets and thickening the air. Having made a life changing transgression, Guowei is asked what the point in any of this really was and seemingly has no answer, his fantasy perhaps shattered by his single act of horrifying violence intended for the world in which he lived which had already robbed him of so much, but vented on a possibly innocent party all because of a personal conviction more akin to prejudice. A victim of changing times denied his future, the “meaningful life” that would allow him to greet the new century with head held high, Guowei creates a new narrative for himself in which he can be the hero but there is a storm always looming and Guowei has been swiping at ghosts flickering on the peripheries of his fracturing mind. Eventually Guowei too decides it’s time to leave this place only to find no way out from the blizzard conditions which continue frustrate the path towards his future.
The Looming Storm screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 plus Q&A with director Dong Yue on 9th July at 9.30pm.
Original trailer (English subtitles)