It’s a curious thing, in a way, that the central conceit of Zhang Yimou’s deliciously convoluted Song Dynasty mystery Full River Red (满江红, Mǎnjiānghóng) should turn on the idea that a truth that shames you should not be concealed. Its heroes die for a poem written by a wronged man that according to the closing text at least every child in the China of today knows by heart. Yet one could also say that this tale of intrigue in the court has it parallels in the political realities of the contemporary society, while the ambiguous ending which implies a rejection of the systemic corruptions of the feudal era might also in its way be subversive despite the rabid jingoism of the closing scenes and their thinly veiled allusions to a One China philosophy.
In any case, the film takes its title from a classic poem attributed to general Yue Fei who was put to death on a trumped up charge by corrupt prime minister Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin) who favoured making peace with the warlike Jin over Yue’s bloodthirsty conquest. Qin is about to meet with the Jin on an important matter and it seems to help clear his name only a Jin diplomat is inconveniently murdered in the palace and not only that, it’s also thought he was carrying a highly confidential letter intended for Qin’s eyes only which may implicate him in treachery. For somewhat unclear reasons, buffoonish corporal Zhang Da (Shen Teng) is given two hours to find the letter and figure out who killed the diplomat or prepare to meet his end. Though as he knows find it or not certain death is all that awaits him.
Zhang uses Shen Teng’s comic background to his advantage, painting Zhang Da as a man desperately trying to talk himself out of trouble whose word for those reasons cannot be relied upon. Though all is not as it seems, and Zhang Da proves unexpectedly astute in navigating the complicated machinations of the courtly life. The letter is something of a MacGuffin, but it’s clear that everyone wants it largely as a safety net, hoping to get kompromat on Qin they can use protect themselves in this hellish prison where death lurks around every corner. This is indeed a world in which blood will have blood, nobody is safe, and no one can be trusted. Getting the letter is like getting an immunity card from palace intrigue, something which diffident courtier Wu (Yue Yunpeng) assumed he already had in a golden seal gifted to him by the emperor only to discover it can’t necessarily protect him from someone with no respect for the system.
The palace itself is reflection of the feudal order with its labyrinthine corridors barely narrow enough for two men to pass. There’s a constant feeling of constraint and oppression, not least in the persistent greyness of the palace walls. Even Qin seems to have adopted an air of austerity or perhaps because of the illness he affects dresses less elaborately than one might expect as do his colour coded handmaidens in blue and green who have been rendered deaf and mute to prevent them revealing any of his secrets. Zhang Da is paired with the serious commander Sun (Jackson Yee) who in a running gag is actually his uncle though much younger than him. On one level Sun is committed to this system and fully complicit with it even if casting suspicion on himself with his counterproductive habit of killing of potential suspects before they’ve given up any information, but also harbours a lingering resentment in being rendered little more than a tool for a corrupt order for which he is willing to debase him in wilfully waterboarding a friend with vinegar in a bid for redemption in the eyes of the palace.
The tone is however ironic and filled with dark humour as a kind of rebellion against the amoral nihilism of constant betrayals that define feudal life. The heroes are tattooed with the world loyalty on their backs as if standing for a more wholesome humanity though there’s no particular reason to think the system they are loyal to is much better especially given the bloodthirsty quality of Yue’s death poem which is the text that’s really being sought in its talk of national humiliation, lost lands, and feasting on the corpses of one’s enemies. Moving with the comic beats of Peking opera, Zhang scores the film with a mix of classical instrumentation and angry, hip hop-style arrangements of warlike folk songs that reinforce the duality of this tale of so many dualities in talking both of the present day and the ancient past. In any case, the ending most closely resembles a western as the world weary hero recovers his self-respect and rides off into the sunset to live as an ordinary man far away from the corrupt world of the court and finally free of its tyrannous constraints.
Full River Red was released in UK cinemas courtesy of Magnum Films.
Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)