Putting his gruffly commanding screen presence to good use, Duan Yihong has found a niche in the crime genre of late, whether as a diligent police captain in The Dead End (2015) or the grandiose figurehead of a narcotics syndicate in Extraordinary Mission (2017). Dong Yue’s debut feature The Looming Storm finds Duan straddling both sides of the law as his character Yu Guowei is first seen being released from prison in 2008 after serving a 10-year stretch for an unspecified offense. However, the film soon backtracks to 1997 for the bulk of its narrative, at which time Yu was a factory security guard. When the dead body of a prostitute is discovered near the facility, the ambitious Yu assigns himself the task of bringing the murderer to justice, but The Looming Storm turns out to be as much of an investigation of China’s grassroots social fabric on the cusp of its economic miracle as it is a traditional procedural.
Yu starts out as a solid employee with ideas above his station; referred to as ‘master’ by his impressionable assistant Xiao Liu (Zheng Wei), he takes great pride in his job a security chief of Smelting Plant No. 4 and is due to receive a ‘model worker’ award for catching those responsible for a few petty thefts. However, based on simply being asked by investigating officer Chief Zhang (Du Yuan) to check if anyone was absent from their factory duties on the day of the murder, Yu sets out to single-handedly solve the case, which is the latest in a series of killings with the same MO. Reenacting the murder with help from Xiao fails to yield any clues, nor does interviewing prostitutes who frequent the local dancehall, although one, Yanzi (Jiang Yiyun), does at least take a liking to the amateur sleuth, even if he prefers to keep their affectionate relationship oddly chaste.
Eventually, though, Yu’s stubborn persistence pays off, and he chases a hooded suspect through a railroad yard. With its atmospheric use of decaying railroad architecture, this centerpiece is a gripping sequence, which, like much of the film, takes place during a heavy downpour that drastically limits visibility. With regards to the onscreen weather, the storm is not so much looming as in full effect from the opening scenes, which enables Dong to amp up the moody atmospherics and escalating sense of paranoia. With the rain constantly pounding down, almost everyone is rendered anonymous. Clad in heavy, dark raincoats, their faces concealed by hoods, and postures often hunched, anyone could be the killer. The title, then, refers more to the obsession that Yu gradually finds himself engulfed by as he goes from hard worker with a yearning for advancement to having a fixation on confronting the killer, which extends to using the unsuspecting Yanzi as bait. Dong laces the second half with suggestions that Yu is an unreliable narrator, calling certain events into question and giving the film an elliptical dimension.
In-keeping with the film’s political agenda, though, the foreboding title also alludes to the tumultuous changes that would occur in the late-1990s as Chinese president Jiang Zemin began dismantling debt-ridden state-owned enterprises in favor of privatisation, forcing thousands of workers to find new ways to make a living. The ceremony where Yu receives his ‘model worker’ honor is just a means of keeping up collectivist appearances until things are handed over to new management. Adverse weather conditions also permeate the 2008 scenes that bookend the film, with snow starting to fall. That year, China’s winter would prove to be one of its worst with storms causing mass disruption and resulting in an estimated 129 deaths. Those who suffered most were migrant workers simply trying to get to their homes in the countryside after toiling away on the production lines of city factories for the past year. The protagonist of The Looming Storm, then, is as much a casualty of economic policy as he is a victim of pride.
The film’s producer, Xiao Qiancao, was previously involved with Diao Yinan’s award-winning noir Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) and The Looming Storm is a similarly stylish mystery, although its political commentary is more on the nose. Working with muddy shades of green, grey, and yellow, Cai Tao’s cinematography creates a stifling sense of claustrophobia from rural spaces that are perpetually shrouded by pollutant-ridden skies while Ding Ke’s electronic score incorporates industrial noises to disquieting effect. If the pace slackens somewhat in the second half, Dong’s close attention to detail proves immersive as this murkily realized unnamed place proves to be a fitting metaphor for the social frustrations caused by the dissolution of industry structures. In the eye of the storm, Duan’s performance credibly oscillates from self-importance to fatally unhinged as a palpable yearning for closure outweighs the need for conclusive evidence. A noir protagonist for an obsolete generation, the actor’s increasingly downcast expression is as crucial to the film’s critique as its grim evocation of the surrounding landscape.