EXPLOSION (2017) review

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Zhao Xudong (Duan Yihong) is a “blaster”, an explosives engineer working in coal mines, in the northern province of Shanxi. One day, one of his carefully prepared explosions goes wrong, and four miners die while Zhao survives, with a concussion. Mine owner Li Yi (Lu Peng) pays him off to keep his mouth shut about the incident, which appears to be linked to a current power struggle between Li and a local businessman, Cheng Fei (Cheng Taishen). But Zhao’s childhood friend, police detective Xu Feng (Wang Jingchun) is already sniffing around for clues, and soon Zhao is stuck in the middle of a turf war and a police investigation, trying to clear his name and protect his pregnant girlfriend Xiao Hong (Yu Nan), while a killer (Yu Ailei) is on his trail.

Chang Zheng’s Explosion is a tense, noir-ish thriller that starts off low-key, before growing more agitated and explosive, more than earning its title by the time the credits roll. Sliding from a subtle, character-driven crime drama anchored in believable, grounded characters, to a more unhinged action film complete with improvised weapons (a buckshot-firing flashlight sticks in the mind), booby-trapped warehouses, and a very villainous villain who just won’t die, there’s a feeling that Chang Zheng changed his mind halfway through about the kind of film he wanted to make, and thus a slight sense of disappointment.

Still, the northern setting is beautifully captured by cinematographer Chan Chor Keung, with the grey urban and mining landscapes alternating with deep night blues and neon-reds. The use of music is striking, from northern folk music during a particularly breathless and believable foot chase, to pipa playing (recalling the pipa-scored battle in Daniel Lee’s Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, of all films) over a deadly game of cat and mouse in the desert. And the focus on the making of explosives, often in creative but plausible ways, adds an unusual angle to the proceedings.

As Zhao, Duan Yihong is – as often – a fleshed-out, unusual lead; fiercely individualistic yet at times achingly vulnerable, consistently resourceful yet not difficult to manipulate. Duan sometimes goes overboard with his character’s slobbering sobbing, but he is riveting throughout. And he is well supported by the ever-excellent Yu Nan, making the most of an interesting character that sadly goes from a conflicted girlfriend to an ever-helpless hostage, as well as Wang Jingchun on top salty form, Cheng Taishen as a reptilian businessman, and the omnipresent Yu Ailei as a seedy assassin.

Long Story Short: A gripping thriller with a fine cast, that suffers a slightly disappointing slide from subtle and grounded to unhinged and repetitive. ***

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