In 2004, popular TV actor Wu Ruofu was kidnapped and held for ransom for 21 hours, before being rescued by the police, psychologically traumatized but physically unscathed. Now more than a decade later here he is, co-starring in the story of his ordeal, in the role of one of the cops whose tireless investigation led to his rescue, and with superstar Andy Lau playing him. Wu was offered his own role, but refused to relive the events so directly ; shooting – and watching – the film must have been quite the cathartic experience for him, though he has remained tight-lipped about the whole thing. And so in a tight time-frame of 21 hours, Ding Sheng’s Saving Mr. Wu recounts the kidnapping of movie star Wu (Andy Lau) and everyman Dou (Lu Cai) by cunning and ruthless criminal Zhang (Wang Qianyuan), and the subsequent race against time as the police (headed by Liu Ye and the laterally titular Wu Ruofu) catches the latter and tries to have him give out the whereabouts of his victims before it’s too late: they know the abductees are to be killed whether or not the ransom is paid.
In truth, Andy Lau doesn’t exactly play Wu Ruofu: his family name is indeed Wu, but it’s spelt with a different character (whose meaning is ‘me’), and his first name is never spoken. And the film’s Mr. Wu has been infused with some of Lau’s own status: he’s not a Mainland TV actor like Ruofu, but a major Hong Kong film star (and reference is made to his role in God of Gamblers). Still, key features of the real Wu are maintained (such as his military background), and the events have apparently not been changed. It’s a tautly-constructed thriller that unfolds in non-linear but always clear fashion, cleverly mirroring Wu’s abduction and captivity by Zhang’s team of criminals with Zhang’s capture and custody at the hands of the police. Indeed Zhang, who at one point admits he sees a bit of himself in Wu’s wits, is presented as a sort of evil double to his abductee: ironically they’re both sought-after actors in the sense that Wu is an A-list actor and Zhang is a most-wanted list criminal whose preferred method of abduction – used for Wu but also seen in flashbacks to other kidnappings – is to act as a cop.
The narrative is also spiced with flourishes typical of Ding Sheng, from lateral flashbacks that are not instrumental to the story but help flesh it out, to what me might call ‘theoretical flashes’: small scenes that show what could have happened rather than what ends up happening (something Ding did quite a bit in his underrated Police Story 2013), such as when the captive Wu tries – but fails – to reach a gun, and we’re shown what could have happened had he managed to grasp it. These scenes might seem gratuitous at first, but they’re actually an interesting way to toy with the audience’s expectations and, more importantly, illustrate the fragility of fate. But Ding’s film might have floundered in its busy screenplay if it hadn’t been anchored in Andy Lau’s superb performance. The raw emotion and irrepressibly human quality he brings helps keep the fact that he’s an actor playing an actor (half-based on himself) who resorts to acting to save his own life a clever footnote rather than a distracting gimmick. Matching him is Wang Qianyuan who impresses with a turn both fiendishly showy and interestingly contrasted. Liu Ye and Wu Ruofu are fine but get much more limited characters, while Lam Suet is excellent as a long-time friend of Wu’s. Once in a while it’s good to see Lam in a film that doesn’t laugh at him, and he shows again that he’s not just a genial cameo actor.
Long Story Short: A taut, cleverly-constructed and ultimately moving true crime thriller anchored by superb performances from Andy Lau and Wang Qianyuan. ****