Chinese cinematographer-turned-director Dong Yue’s very, very rainy neo-noir The Looming Storm seems, for a while, like it may be doing something pretty impressive. While the film bears a great deal of resemblance to Diao Yinan’s 2014 slow-burn thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (and in fact the two films share a producer), Dong’s twisty, small town murder mystery puts more emphasis on its late-’90s period setting. The bulk of the film unfolds in early 1997, a time in which China experienced not only the effects of a domestic reform project that recast state-owned factories as private ones — resulting in massive layoffs and closures — but that also reflected the expectations of the coming Hong Kong Handover.
Many characters in The Looming Storm express a desire to leave, to flee their life-long home in Hunan province for Hong Kong, or to “wake up from a dream.” But none of this seems to faze Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong), a security officer at one of the town’s struggling local factories who, after being given a Model Worker award by his superiors for catching some petty thieves, channels his irrepressible confidence into investigating a recent spate of unsolved murders. Dong calibrates his film to the single-minded obsession of “Detective Yu” (as the local law enforcement mockingly call him) by casting his procedural against a backdrop of never-ending rain, which makes for at least one stylish set-piece: a footchase that navigates sopping-wet factory scaffolding and a muddied rail yard. But what’s really intriguing about this parallel is the sense that Dong means to conflate the fundamental transformation of Chinese industry with the unmooring of Yu’s identity. Unfortunately, a series of increasingly ridiculous plot developments toward the end muddle that concept, and suggest that Dong’s less interested in a politically provocative Chinese cinema than he is a cheaply ambiguous kind of entertainment.
Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 1.