Nearly everyone in China is familiar with “Full River Red,” a wistful, jingoistic poem by the 12th-century general Yue Fei. Zhang Yimou’s new film of the same name is an origin story of sorts for the poem, spinning a web of political intrigue and comedy that takes place during the Song dynasty and unfolds early one morning, entirely in the pre-dawn hours.
Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin), a prime minister preoccupied with his reputation, brings an army with him to a diplomatic meeting with enemy forces. But before the meeting, a delegate carrying a mysterious letter turns up dead, leading to an investigation, full of twists and turns, helmed by a commander (Jackson Yee) and his bumbling nephew (Shen Teng).
The film, which has skyrocketed to popularity in China — currently the country’s sixth highest-grossing box office entry of all time — is somewhat surprising as the most bankable of Zhang’s career. Despite a prolific filmography of grandiose art house fare that has often wrestled with the vast span of Chinese history, the filmmaker has suffused a dynastic war fable with elements of a slapstick whodunit. Yet the light charm, mostly offered by Shen as the oafish sidekick, serves as a saving grace amid the shadowy political games.
At times, particularly in its overwrought closing act, the film feels as if it’s going to collapse under the weight of its relentless, convoluted twists. But the lighthearted tone poking through keeps it afloat, and suspends the viewer in mostly carefree entertainment for its two-and-a-half-hour running time.
Full River Red
Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 39 minutes. In theaters.