Cheng Er directs Sun Honglei in a dark noir the Coen Brothers would be proud of…
Through overlapping vignettes stretching back and forth over time, Lethal Hostage unravels the tale of Hong (Sun Honglei, Seven Swords, Zhou Yu’s Train, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop), a ruthless drug dealer, and his fiancée Annie, (Wang Luodan, aka May Wang, Caught In The Web). On the borders with Burma, she meets her estranged father (Ni Dahong), who refuses to bless he marriage to Hong.
In Yunnan we find Narcotics cop (Zhang Mo) desperately trying to hunt down drugs carrier (Yang Kun), we know their paths will cross, but how? We cut back to ten years before, to when Hong ended up taking Annie hostage as a child when a transaction went very wrong. Now he wants to give being a gangster, but he needs to carry out one last job to be able to afford it, but it may well threaten their future.
With and English title that can’t help but conjure up images of Mel Gibson in a mullet, and a slick, fast-paced trailer, you can’t help but think this is being a little bit mis-sold. Sure, it might be a harder sell, but far more worthwhile. Cheng Er (Unfinished Girl) directs with the clean preciseness of, say, Michael Mann. There’s plenty of space here, of time taken over moments, an almost lyrical (though harsh in content) approach to storytelling.
Right from the very beginning, there’s a tangible inevitability to the fate of the characters; but it’s not one that spoils the viewing (though I may well be about to spoil it for you!). It’s a dark noir, so wrapped in coincidence and consequences it has the feel of a more serious Coen Brothers film, like Blood Simple or No Country For Old Men. Yang Kun is as cold and unstoppable as Javier Bardem in No Country; and one of the films best set pieces, a confrontation between cop and drugs dealer, evokes Blood Simple with it’s gunshots through a wall lighting a darkened room. Something Sun Honglei is no stranger to, having taken the lead in Zhang Yimou’s remake of the Coen’s debut Blood Simple, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (and rather unimaginatively retitled as Blood Simple on its UK release).
Hong’s older character is contrasted with that of his bosses’ son and that played by Yang Kun; though ruthless, he seems to have some morals, some things he just won’t do, but this seems to have been lost in the next generation. The final moments recall Robert De Niro’s character in Heat, that his actions are deliberate, almost honourable.
They used to say Mainland China couldn’t make a proper crime film, but perhaps this ending managed to make it through those strict restrictions. Here it adds rather than diminishes the tale, though you can’t help but feel there’s much more that made it through. Indeed, one failing of the film is that it doesn’t really explore Hong and Annie’s adult relationship, referencing it only when we see her taking a pregnancy test.
If Annie seems to dote on her man too profusely, then Gao Ye, who plays Zhang Mo’s cop’s sister, brings a wonderfully off key brashness to her role. Composer Chen Weilun brings an adventurous score that, rather like the film itself, doesn’t necessarily play by the rules.
Simply put, Lethal Hostage is an exemplary thriller that deserves be exposed to a much wider international audience…