Producer: Pang Liwei   Director: Zhang Yimou   Screenplay: Zhang Yimou and Chen Yu   Cast: Shen Teng, Jackson Yee, Zhang Yi, Lei Jiayin, Wang Jiayi, Yue Yunpeng, Xu Jingya, Pan Binlong, Yu Ailei, Guo Jingfei, Ou Hao and Ren Sinuo   Distributor: Niu Vision Media

Grade: B

During his prolific career Zhang Yimou has shown his mastery at choreographing crowds and extravagant swordplay in expansive wuxia epics like “Hero” and “Shadow,” but in the case of “Full River Red,” the running-time might be monumental (two-and-a-half hours) but the physical space is actually quite confined, even claustrophobic, and the battles emphasize words rather than blades.  Given its emphasis on dialogue-driven plot, it’s amazing how exciting Zhang manages to make the film—a testimony to his skill, as well as that of cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding and editor Li Yongyi—even if it does drag a bit in the final reel and the rah-rah nationalism with which it closes might give some viewers pause.

The title is taken from a poem by Yue Fei, a general serving the Southern Song dynasty who was put to death in 1142, supposedly on trumped-up charges, by Emperor Gaozong and his Chancellor Qin Hui, who sought peace with the northern Jin dynasty the general was determined to defeat.  As a result he has become an icon representing true patriotism and unyielding loyalty to the state, and his poem—which emphasizes protecting the fatherland and preserving it territorially—is renowned among the Chinese populace.  Around this episode, and the sentiment expressed in the poem, Zhang and co-writer Chen Yu have fashioned a fanciful tale of conspiracy and betrayal as labyrinthine as the huge fortress in which the entire plot is set. 

The year is 1146, and frail but cagey Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin) is set to meet with a Jin leader to thrash out the terms of a rapprochement between the two realms.  But Hadeng (Wei Xiang), a Jin enjoy, is killed after reaching the fortress, and a secret letter he was carrying has gone missing.  Qin Hui demands that the killer be found and the letter recovered, and Sun Jun (Jackson Yee), the deputy commander of the palace force, is tasked with interrogating guardsmen on duty that night.  One of them is Zhang Da (Shen Teng), an excitable ruffian—and, though older, a nephew of Sun Jun, as well as an escapee from the Jin—who redeems himself by identifying the pouch in which the letter was carried as signifying that the document was of the highest priority. 

In response, Qin Hui and his stoically Machiavellian office manager Lord He Li (Zhang Yi) assign Sun Jun and Zhang Da to ferret out the murderer and find the letter, giving them until daybreak to succeed or suffer the consequences.  The rest of the film alternates between scenes of them frantically rushing down narrow hallways from one location to another as Han Hong’s score revs up the music electronically and adds screeching female vocals to the mix, and expository episodes in which Sun and Zhang discuss the possibilities or find themselves in the company of Qin Hui, He Li, or others who play parts in the increasingly complicated series of schemes, counter-schemes and counter-counter schemes.  These include chubby, inept Lord Wu Yichun (Yue Yunpeng), He Li’s deputy; Zither (Wang Jiayi) a dancing girl who was one of the last people to see Hadeng alive and probably knows more than she’s telling; and Liu Xi (Yu Ailei), a peasant coachman with a cute daughter (Ren Sinuo) who prizes a rare fruit, cherries.

Matters grow murkier and more complex as the night progresses, with corpses piling up, multiple scenes of torture, the revelation of secrets from the past and motives changing from moment to moment.  It would take a far longer review than this one to enumerate the ever-accumulating cascade of twists, turns and reversals.  One aspect of the scenario is that Zhang Da, who initially seems to be a slapstick buffoon (a quality Shen plays to the hilt for comic effect) turns out to be a canny “Columbo” sort who pushes the investigation forward  every time it appears to hit a dead end; and it turns out there’s a good reason for that.  Nonetheless it’s Sun Jun, whom Yee plays with stoic determination, who must finally deal with the ever-duplicitous Qin Hui, who always seems to have one more card to play, including his beautiful, mute attendant Sapphire (Xu Jingya), who proves far more than just a pretty face.

Nonetheless Zhang Yimou gives the last word to Yue Fei, long dead but definitely not forgotten, whose paean to total patriotism the director obviously sees as perfectly suited to the era of Xi Jinping.  Its message of unrestrained nationalism might make Western viewers uneasy at a time when the issue of Taiwan has grown so heated, but the director, who has had some trouble with Chinese critics of his work in the past, knows where the pulse of his country is at present. Though “Full River Red” doesn’t equal the very best of Zhang’s work artistically, it is the most financially successful film he has ever made, as of March 18 the highest-grossing film of the year in China, and the country’s sixth highest-grossing release of all time.  Make of that what you will.