NYAFF 2019: SAVAGE Will Satisfy Your Lust for Mayhem

The New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 28 to July 14. For more information, click here.

Is it a hackneyed move to praise a movie titled Savage for its vicious, primal nature?

Probably, but it’s also pretty much inevitable.

None of the films of the festival thus far have been quite as immediately effective at grabbing the audience by the throat as Siwei Ciu’s debut thriller Savage, which gets down to brutal business with an admirable sense of bloody minded single-mindedness.

Our story takes place in and around Mt. Baekdu on the Chinese-Korean border. Officer Wang and his partner Zhang Lu are friendly rivals over the love of Dr. Sun, though clearly Wang would have the edge if he’d ever work up the nerve to confess his feelings. But the rivalry becomes a moot point when they stop to assist a seemingly lost group of hunters and instead find they have stumbled into the aftermath of a mountaintop gold heist masterminded by the sinister Damao.

By the end of their brief encounter Zhang Lu is dead, Wang has survived by the skin of his teeth, and the bad guys are in the wind.

A year passes, and Wang is a broken shell of a man. But on the eve of a massive blizzard and Dr. Sun leaving town to take up a new post, he discovers that the thieves have returned, and he may have one final chance to achieve some sort of justice.

(At this point you may be asking yourself “‘”But is there grievous bodily harm involving a bear trap?“’” To which I respond: you’re damn right there’s grievous bodily harm involving a bear trap!)

The biggest and most vital advantage that Savage has is its very direct sense of purpose. Fully invested in the cat-and-mouse of it all, the film wisely refuses to weigh its narrative down with a bunch of subplots or extraneous characters; the bulk of the film is really down to Wang and his quarry, along with a couple of unaffiliated rogues that act as wild cards in the proceedings. The ticking clock of the oncoming storm, and the increasing desperation of everyone involved (first to profit, then merely to survive), means a constant strain of tension, especially as alliances begin to shift in unpredictable and ultimately unstable ways. And it all happens in the midst of a winter that Cui takes pains to make visceral; there isn’t a single moment in which the audience isn’t painfully aware just how cold a mountain winter in east Asia can be.

In a markedly less subdued performance than his one in his other NYAFF entry Mr. Long, Chang Chen gives good grizzled, never leaning too far into badass, posturing; despite his trauma, he still maintains something of the self-effacing boy scout he was before everything went wrong for him. And as his opposite number, Liao Fan is all cold-blooded malevolence, making the most of his (surprisingly limited) screentime.

After a fairly limited career as a screenwriter (only four previous screenplays, including the latter day Jackie Chan vehicle Bleeding Steel), Cui makes for a remarkably assured first time director. The opening heist scene, involving a massive avalanche of timber logs raining down a mountain and crushing everything in its path, sets the bar pretty high in terms of impact, and the rest of the film does its best to reward the audience’s lust for further mayhem.

If there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that the treatment of the sole female character leaves a lot to be desired. As Dr. Sun, actress Ni Ni has next to nothing to work with, little more than the kind of damsel in distress that’s beyond played out at this stage in the game. And it has to be said that the film goes on just a little bit longer than it should; people who should be long dead from all the damage they took are still alive and kicking past the point when we’re all ready for things to be wrapped up, and so the conclusion suffers as a result. Ten to fifteen minutes shaved off of the finale would make this a modern classic, instead of merely excellent.

But I’m disinclined to complain too much about the lows when the highs are so rewarding. Savage is a thrilling opening salvo from a filmmaker that really knows how to turn the screws. Seeing what he does next is going to be a real treat.

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