THE LOOMING STORM (2017) review

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The directing debut of cinematographer Dong Yue, The Looming Storm takes place in a drab, perpetually rainy small industrial town, where young women, often prostitutes, are being murdered by a serial killer. Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong) is the head of security of a factory close to which one of the victims was found, and with the local police severely understaffed for such an investigation, his appetite for detective work is put to use by the police chief (Du Yuan). Though an amateur detective, Yu manages to have a close encounter with the killer, whose hooded face he cannot see, and who manages a close escape. More and more determined, despite the death of his sidekick as the result of nasty fall while they were chasing the killer in an abandoned factory, Yu gets closer to a kind prostitute (Jiang Yiyan), whom he decides to use as bait, as she fits the profile of the previous victims. But is the noose tightening around the bait, the killer, or the detective?

An incredibly grey, dank film, The Looming Storm unfolds in a series of impressive tableaux of rain-soaked industrial alienation and small-town desolation. It’s a grey-and-white film and cinematographer Cai Tao works wonders turning the most drab landscapes into almost phantasmagorical canvasses through which Duan Yihong’s character chases a mysterious hooded figure. The omnipresent rain, small-town setting and doomed, abusive investigation set the film as a close cousin to Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Memories of Murder, but Dong Yue’s film is less tightly-scripted and less rich in detail. In fact there’s a stillness to it that is often self-defeating: Dong’s juxtaposition of the collapse of China’s old industrial system and the collapse of Yu Guowei’s (whose name is said to mean, ironically, “remnants of a glorious nation”) investigation would have been just as effective with a sustained pace (one chase scene is quite effective), less artsy contemplation and fewer pregnant silences.

Still, as seen as a character study, The Looming Storm can be riveting, thanks to cleverly brought-about minor twists about Yu Guowei’s methods – his relationship to Jiang Yiyan’s character is a subtle and paradoxical mix of romantic yearning and cold-blooded instrumentalization – but also a superb performance by Duan Yihong. Hauntingly single-minded, tragically misguided, as groveling with the strong as he is blustering with the weak, capable of sweetness as well as calculation, Yu Guowei is one of the estimable actor’s most indelible turns. He is well-matched by the ever-excellent Jiang Yiyan, though her character is confined to a parenthesis rather than integrated to a real narrative arc. An epilogue set ten years after the events adds a bitter coda that somewhat muddles what came before, by adding uncertainties to a film that already featured too many of them for its own good. Still, a promising debut.

Long Story Short: A gripping character study and a haunting investigation are muddled by artsy pretensions and narrative dead-ends in Dong Yue’s gorgeously-shot directing debut. ***

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