Saving Mr. Wu (China, 2015) [NYAFF 2016]
The kidnapping of actor Wu Ruofu in Beijing in 2004 is recreated (with some creative liberties) by writer-director Ding Sheng and leading man Andy Lau in Saving Mr. Wu, a solid true crime thriller which pays as much tribute to the rigorous professionalism of the cops who investigated the case as it does to the bravery of the abducted performer.
Getting straight down to business, the film opens with Wu (Lau) and a producer leaving a Chaoyang district restaurant having just celebrated closing a deal for a new movie project. They are approached by men claiming to be Beijing police officers who want to interview Wu as his vehicle has allegedly been involved in a hit and run incident. When Wu questions their authenticity, they abruptly dispense with the ruse and bundle him into a car to take him to their hideout. On arrival, we learn that the gang has another hostage, Xiao Dou (Cai Lu), who has been chosen as a result of an assumption about his economic status that was based entirely on the sports car that he was seen driving. The brains of the operation is Zhang Hua (Wang Qingyuan), a thoroughly nasty piece of work for whom a high risk crime like kidnapping is merely a stepping stone to a bigger criminal plan (he intends to use the ransom money to fund an audacious robbery). Keeping his cool under immense duress, Wu tries to negotiate with Zhang and ingratiate himself with the henchmen when their boss is not around. However, he comes to realize that the ruthless Zhang is likely to kill him and Xiao once their ransoms have been paid.
The film cuts back-and-forth from Wu’s situation to the efforts of police to locate him before time runs out. At the risk of puncturing suspense, Ding shows Zhang in police custody early in the film with detectives Xing Feng (Liu Ye) and Cao Gang (Wu Ruofu himself) trying to convince the egocentric ringleader to give up Wu’s location before its too late. The actual ordeal lasted 23 hours – at one point, Wu was considering having his story produced for television in the style of the ‘real time’ series 24 (2001-2010) – and Ding sets out to cover all the essential details through a convoluted flashback structure that occasionally confuses but mostly works with sudden jumps between time frames challenging viewers to keep up, even though many will already be aware of the outcome.
Ding has become one of Jackie Chan’s go-to directors since the martial arts superstar decided to forsake his Hong Kong audience in favor of the massive mainland market and these collaborations have proved the filmmaker to be a variable journeyman. Chan’s long-gestating passion project Little Big Soldier (2010) turned out to be a highly enjoyable period romp but franchise reboot Police Story 2013 (2013), in which Chan found himself trapped inside a nightclub, was a drab thriller that prioritized extolling the selfless dedication of Beijing police officers over delivering any genuine excitement. Despite its true crime background, Saving Mr. Wu has a surprising amount in common with Police Story 2013 as a hostage scenario is again realised through a gritty palette. Like the earlier film, which tried to get around the restrictions that its confined space premise put on the potential for spectacle by using a flashback as an excuse for the biggest action set-piece, Saving Mr. Wu has imaginary moments that seem to have been designed for the promotional materials (notably Wu considering that he would do if he gained possession of his kidnapper’s rifle) that feel awkwardly shoehorned into an otherwise matter-of-fact procedural. These missteps aside, Ding keeps things taut and impersonal throughout, demonstrating a resolutely no-nonsense approach that is at odds with the flashy aesthetic of most recent commercial mainland China releases.
Although a strong cast has been assembled (Lam Suet appears as the old friend Wu calls to assist with the ransom) there is little room for any of the supporting players to develop characters beyond the roles that they play in Wu’s kidnapping or rescue. Lau, however, gets plenty of mileage out of referencing his enduring stardom – Wu was a minor mainland television actor at the time of his kidnapping, while Lau is playing the kind of major Hong Kong movie star and singer who receives instant recognition and admiration. These tweaks add an odd meta layer to a film that otherwise aspires to be as pared-down as possible but Lau, who spends most of the film chained to a chair, gets to show how Wu relies on his charming public persona to mask inner panic and calm others, while conveying the genuine sincerity that prompts people to say that his fame “couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.” When the petrified Xiao explains that he wanted to attend Wu’s most recent concert but could not get a ticket, the consummate performer puts their horrible predicament aside to serenade him with one of his Cantopop hits. Ding’s screenplay also touches on the inconvenience of kidnapping a Hong Kong star rather than a local celebrity as Wu only has a relatively small amount of his fortune in mainland accounts with the bulk of the ransom requiring a tricky bank transfer.
With its broad strokes storytelling, jittery camerawork, and exposition-heavy dialogue, Saving Mr. Wu sometimes plays like a souped-up television drama, but Ding nonetheless manages to wring a fair amount of tension from the time-sensitive proceedings while Lau’s charismatic performance is the definition of grace under pressure.
Saving Mr. Wu is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday July 9 at 4:00pm at the SVA Theatre. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.