A young woman (Wang Luodan) asks her recently widowed father (Ni Dahong) to bless her marriage to her husband (Sun Honglei): he refuses. A Narcotics detective (Zhang Mo) is on the trail of a drugs carrier (Yang Kun), who manages to elude him and ends up hiding out in a flat next door to a girl (Gao Ye) and her dog. Cheng Er’s Lethal Hostage sets up these two narrative strands in a few minutes, and then unfolds in four chapters set in the past and the present: these strands are of course connected, and there’s much under the surface of what we’ve just seen. To say more would be to start spoiling the film: it is a simple story told in an interesting and meticulously calculated way, much like Fei Xing’s The Man Behind The Courtyard House, which similarly used a non-linear and chaptered structure to elaborate on a seemingly straightforward set-up and evolve into a meditation on fate and the balance of good and evil in man.
As if conscious that his chosen structure is ornate enough, Cheng Er (who also wrote and edited the film) exercises restraint in most other respects. The cast is uniformly excellent, with the main trio of Sun Honglei, Ni Dahong and Wang Luodan masterfully underacting and working with dialogue so sparse the film would have probably worked just as well as a silent movie, especially as Chen Weilun’s score is expressive without getting overbearing. Sun, in particular, is remarkable as he plays one these ‘human cypher’ characters he seems to gravitate towards, and anchors the film as its most monolithic and yet contrasted character – a paradox that’s hard to successfully achieve.
Editing and lensing (by Xu Wei and Du Jie) consistently achieve another fine paradox: that of contemplative urgency. Indeed, tension is maintained and heightened not through quick-cutting or shaky filming (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with these techniques), or accumulating immediate stakes, but through a still and unflinching look at every situation. For instance, at some point a man runs away from the police with a little girl as hostage. Rather than follow him beat-by-beat in his breathless flight, Cheng Er pulls back and lets the urgency sink in by showing him from above, as a small figure running in an alleyway, already lost to the police among the city’s buildings, with his frail and innocent hostage. This a quietly gripping film.
The elaborate structure slowly fills the audience in on each character’s backstory and motivations, making room for both the fateful – doomed love, tragic coincidences, ultimate sacrifice – and the trivial, like a cat fight between two students over a pair of sunglasses or the gift of an apple by a child. No character is judged as good or bad, not even the drugs carrier, who chokes a woman almost to death and shoots a dog, but is portrayed as brutally efficient and soulless rather than simply evil. But Sun Honglei and Ni Dahong’s characters provide a more interesting character study, the latter a grief-stricken, morose but resilient and loving father, the former a ruthless drug lord ready to die for love. Their fight for the care of Wang Luodan’s character, and her choices in the face of that conundrum, are the film’s true heart and an affecting rumination over the infinite shades of grey in good and evil.
Long Story Short: A captivating, cleverly-constructed and superbly-acted crime drama, doubled with a stimulating meditation on the balance of good and evil in man. ****1/2