The Looming Storm, a Chinese film noir, is the directorial debut of cinematographer Yue Dong. For much of its run time the film is a chilling examination of a changing Chinese economy and the lives upended by it, but the film’s ending buckles under the obligations of genre filmmaking
Classic American noir, often set in Los Angeles, can seem a bit ridiculous to modern eyes because of how much rain the filmmakers have transposed to a city in a desert, but The Looming Storm takes this to extremes. The constant rain seems as if it might drive everyone in a small industrial town mad. Even more than it resembles other crime thrillers, the movie brings to mind Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Long Rain,” in which the eternal rain on a faraway planet slowly drives a group of stranded explorers mad.
In The Looming Storm, that constant rain seems to be an accomplice to a series of brutal murders of women. Their mangled bodies are discovered in empty fields just outside a local smelting plant. Chief of Security Yu (Yihong Duan) is an overzealous security guard who feels an obligation to help the police investigate due to the proximity to his factory. Despite his naiveté, Yu is far more thorough in his investigation than the commanding officer, Zhang (Yuan Du), who’s only looking forward to retiring
Dong skillfully combines a murder mystery with social critique of China circa 1997, when unproductive factories were being shut down and workers who had developed a sense of consistency were being fired. It’s not hard to imagine a man, already on the brink of madness, turning to murder amidst the upheaval.
But Dong isn’t able to sustain the film’s momentum as it hurtles toward its ending. The rain-soaked movie, which is mostly ice cold in its first three-quarters, becomes overheated and pulpy in the final minutes. The film’s tone veers wildly, and the actors slip into uncharacteristic histrionics. The finale sacrifices the careful menace Dong has been building.
It’s usually unfair to judge a film solely based on an ending, but The Looming Storm’s frazzled conclusion makes a mockery of the earlier sections’ deliberate buildup. Still, the fact that he made three-quarters of a terrific crime film is reason enough to watch out for Dong’s future work.