Director: Cui Siwei
Notable Cast: Chang Chen, Liao Fan, Ni Ni, Guangjie Li, Huang Jue
The harsh tundra of Mount Baekdu in China is the backdrop for one of 2019's biggest surprises thus far, the taut, relentless crime thriller that is Savage.
Wang Kanghao (Chang Chen) is a detective who has been posted to work at a smaller town in the mountainous region, which has been in a swift economic decline since the banning of logging in their local forestry went into effect some years prior to his arrival. Instead of tending to the possible minute local disputes as one would imagine goes on in a town of its size, Wang instead finds himself thrust quickly into a deadly situation as a trio of outlaws rob a passing truck full of gold bars. What ensues is a blood-soaked, frostbitten descent into hell.
The plot and narrative are fairly simplistic and straightforward to an almost clichéd degree, but thankfully writer turned director Cui Siwei (The Island, Bleeding Steel) keeps his debut film free of all possible unnecessary fat and instead delivers a lean and tense game of cat and mouse that belongs amongst any of the great thrillers of the last decade.
In terms of a technical standpoint, Savage fires off on all cylinders. The cinematography ranges from epic sweeping shots showcasing the geography of the gorgeous mountainsides to up close and personal, revealing every painfully cold detail of characters on the fray and brink of succumbing to the harsh weather conditions all the while fighting to survive in the wake of each other's destructive path. With most big Chinese blockbusters nowadays, there is the token way too big for its own good CGI beat during a large scale action scene towards the beginning that pulls the viewer out momentarily, but it is just that, brief and only once really. The rest of the time we see real car wrecks and prosthetic blood squibs versus the typical digital arterial spray that unfortunately plagues cinema today.
All solid performances are given from each and every cast member, including the few supporting players, each given more than one moment to shine. Of course, there's no doubt that both Chang Chen and Liao Fan steal the show as the protagonist and antagonist, respectively. The pain seeps through Chen's Detective Wang as he suffers the loss of a partner and being sent to a place unknown to him, where only his primal instincts seem to rule over him. Liao Fan is a brutal and wicked villain that keeps the audience on their toes as he drags Wang through the trenches. Ni Ni is the film's love interest and plot device as she ends up in the wrong hands, and it all happens too coincidentally, knocking the movie into some typical film tropes, but once more, the execution far exceeds the very few downfalls of the script.
When all is said and done, Savage occasionally stumbles but never once falls and barrels along at such a brisk pace, never once letting up the tension until the very end, and puts Cui Siwei's directorial debut at several notches above your average thriller. It's sleek production values and incredible directing and acting easily cements Savage amongst the giants of the genre. This very well may be the sleeper hit of the year. I absolutely cannot wait to see what Cui does next. An astonishing debut!