Review: Lethal Hostage (2012)

Directed by:
Cast: , , , ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

With a title which sounds more like a low-budget straight-to-DVD feature, mainland director Cheng Er has created a major film which deserves an audience outside China. Lethal Hostage is an inventive and meticulously crafted crime drama set on the China-Burma border.

The story opens with a father who has just been released from jail meeting his only daughter {May Wang) who he hasn’t seen for over ten years. As a child, the daughter was kidnapped by a drug dealer (Sun Honglei) who used her as a hostage to aid his escape from China back to his criminal enclave in Burma. Twists of fate eventually see the daughter marrying her kidnapper.

In only his second feature, writer-director Cheng Er creates a complex, jigsaw-like narrative which is so well structured and edited that from early on in the film it’s not difficult to become completely absorbed in this picture.

But at times he seems to deliberately hold the audience at arm’s length with minimal dialogue and refusing to give names to the characters. (It’s not a fault of the subtitling as the end credits only show the actors’ names.) It’s a strange thing to do when it doesn’t really have any effect either way on the film.

Visually, Cheng and his cinematographers design a truly memorable look for the movie. The Chinese border town of Mengxiu is shot in what can only be described as dominant bile green hues. It’s a city of decay with hardly any people on the streets, and the trappings of commercialism, shops and arcades, are abandoned or in disrepair. In a most vivid and ironic contrast, Cheng imagines sunny vistas of a bucolic Burma, which we soon see as a facade which hides the rotting corpses of drug dealing, corruption and paedophilia.

May Wang and Sun Honglei in 'Lethal Hostage'

May Wang and Sun Honglei in ‘Lethal Hostage’

Sun Honglei and May Wang are the central characters and each struggles as much with the past as they do with the present. At one point both are involved in a particularly harrowing scene where a person is buried alive as punishment. Cheng and his stars manage to turn this scene back on itself and provide a searing moment of genuine love and loss.

Sun Honglei’s often sullen demeanour and conflicting values are brought to the fore in a classic changing-of-the-criminal-guard sequence. With its religious symbolism and graphic violence it reminds me of a similar passage in Coppola’s The Godfather. Cheng, again, is well aware of this and frames this sequence with two chilling images.

Whilst the film sidesteps the issue of police / government corruption, it does expose a flawed legal system, by following the plight of an initially innocent dentist who becomes a victim of a one-size-fits-all judiciary. The dentist’s role is taken by well-known Chinese actor Ni Dahong (Curse of the Golden Flower), who gives the best and most nuanced performance of the film, as a human being who has lost everybody and everything in his life.

The movie seems to lose momentum as it looks set to finally follow the well-worn genre path to its conclusion. But in a real surprise we find ourselves in a dramatic scene set in an outdoor restaurant. What unfolds is double-cross, triple-cross, loaded pistols in cash-filled suitcases and personal scores being settled above and below the law. It’s all performed in such a cool and stylish fashion you’d swear the combatants were speaking French not Mandarin.

The final minutes of Lethal Hostage involve a clever plot twist. It’s credible and works well in what had been a grim and nihilistic narrative. If this film had been made five years ago, I doubt the current ending would have been approved by Chinese censors.  It’s an encouraging sign for the future of mainland Chinese cinema.

8.5 white sunhats out of 10.
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