Worked as a screenwriter on popular films like ‘Island’ and ‘Bleeding Steel’, ‘Cui Siwei’ chooses a character drama in the guise of a visceral thriller, centered on a heist, as his debut film. He worked for five years on various versions to refine the script. He handled various elements of the film – commercial value, literary factor, social implications, and visual effects – independently, and brought it together to make a visually spectacular ‘Savage’ having a straight-forward story.
Cui Siwei doesn’t bolster the film with a political or social under-tone, which has become the backbone for many Chinese films traveling in the film festivals. He rather opts for a humanistic drama that sees two characters on the opposite sides of the law, navigating through the moral ambiguity in wretched weather.
The opening montage of the serene mountain with the whiff of cold wind warns of the blizzard to come, literally and figuratively. Savage opens with a melancholic monologue describing once lively town that descended into desolation after the ban on logging.
A voiceover says, “I never saw those good times.” There’s a feeling of melancholy to it, rooted deep in regrets and life choices. It has an undercurrent of the only political connotation in the film.
Cui Siwei shifts the attention at the top of the white-clad snow mountain that witnesses a terrific action set piece. A truck loaded with gold, followed by a police escort vehicle, is intercepted by another truck and thrown down the mountain by an artificial avalanche created using massive logs. Damao (Liao Fan, “Ash Is Purest White”), his younger brother Ermao (Zhang Yicong) and sidekick Zhang (Huang Jue, “Long Day’s Journey into Night”) hide the gold and flee from the scene before the police get there.
Jaunty Han Xiaosong (Li Guangjie) and mild-mannered Wang Kanghao (Chang Chen, “The Assassin”) are buddy cops stationed in the secluded town, at the foothill of Baekdu Mountain. They both are head over heels on the local doctor Sun Yan (Ni Ni).
While attending to the emergency on the mountain, their encounter with the robbers at the foothill results in the shootout, killing Han and Wang narrowly escapes the death.
Though we are never shown Wang’s grieving over the death of his friend, his silence is often revealing. He bottles up all the emotion and creates a facade of calm demeanor, but his eyes speak of his state.
The news of the robbers’ arrival on the mountain to move the gold set the revenge-filled Wang in action. He leaves in desperation to hunt them down like a wolf hunter without thinking of the implications in his personal and professional space. Soon the consequences follow, and Sun gets embroiled in the cat-and-mouse game that sees the shift in loyalties and double-crosses, driven by love, greed, and revenge.
Cui Siwei’s never rushes to the climax. He intricately explores the facets of human characteristics in his taut and tensive screenplay. Even when the direction does not capitalize on the tense moments, Wang’s desperation and Damao’s greed interest in a chilling confrontation inside the mountain resort that plays out into a nail-biting catastrophe, reminiscing of The Hateful Eight pre-climatic showdown. Du Jie’s direction of photography adds a layer to the unfolding drama that would freeze the screen with the widescreen shots. The problematic editing in the first act irons out when the parallel narration converges into a showdown between good and evil.