2017 saw a bit of a resurgence in Asian serial killer films. While South Korea gave us a mixed bag of films of the genre like “V.I.P.”, “Memoir of a Murderer” and “The Chase”, Japan remade the South Korean thriller “Confession of Murder” into “Memoirs of a Murderer” with disastrous results. But it was Chinese director Dong Yue’s solid debut effort “The Looming Storm” that managed to stand heads and shoulders over the rest. The noir film featured in competition at the Tokyo Film Festival and won Dong Yue the Best New Director award at the Asian Film Awards.

The Looming Storm is screening at the 17th New York Asian Film Festival

It’s 1997 and while the Handover of Hong Kong is happening in the south, elsewhere the Chinese government is shutting down non-profiting state-run  factories. It is in one such rain-drenched factory-populated small town that Yu Guowei, a self-important Security chief at a factory, has been called by Police Chief Zheng Wei to a crime scene where the police has found a murdered girl, to find out if any workers from his factory were absent on the day of the crime. As it turns out, the murder is the third in a series of killings and thought to be the work of the same killer. While the police, who want to go about the case by the books, watch as the bodies pile on, Yu considers himself an able detective and launches a parallel investigation of his own, shadowed by his assistant Xiao Liu. When he is laid off from work, he engrosses himself into his investigation which manages to pull Yanzi, a prostitute who Yu has a soft corner for and dreams of leaving her line for work to open a beauty salon in Hong Kong, into it.

The setting for the story seems right out of a Jia Zhangke film, with political and social changes brought forth by modernisation affecting the lives and actions of the characters. Director Dong Yue, who has previously worked as a cinematographer, brings his experience with the images to present a dull, dilapidated town almost always drenched in a downpour which makes for a fitting playground for characters all soaked in their own regrets, duties, ambitions and self-worth. While the screenplay, also by Dong Yue, has all the classic traits of a serial killer thriller, it is most successful when it concentrates on character development and relationships. A minor ethical betrayal from Xiao Lu, who absolutely looks up to Yu and calls him “maestro”, and the effect it has on Yu is heart-breaking. Scenes between Yanzi and Yu are arguably the highlights of the film. Though they both share mutual feelings, their relationship never really progresses further than a dance inside a closed salon as the rain plays its music on the glass front.

The thriller elements of the story are indeed a slow-burner, developing slowly alongside the character developments. Several scenes will have you on the edge of your seat, most notably a thrilling chase sequence on foot involving Yu, Xiao Liu and a possible suspect through the massive ageing metal skeleton of the factory, through old machines lying unused in ruins and eventually into a rail yard filled with parked goods carriages. Though the story never quite reaches the boiling point it promises to, it manages to reach a conclusion that is sure to divide people. The rest of the story may be very well thought out and understandably take its time to reach where it does, but the eventual conclusion seems like a rushed affair that may leave some viewers perplexed and wanting more.

Yu Guowei is a complex character who goes through quite an arc, and Duan Yihong manages to portray each shade of the character mesmerisingly. He catches each nuance expertly. He is quite the talent and should frankly be a bigger name than he is. Zheng Wei is entertaining as the faithful but bumbling Xiao Liu. Jian Yiyan is most impressive as Yanzi. She is both naive yet incredibly mature when required and shows a fantastic command over her art. Her scenes with Yu Guowei form the heart of the film and remain with you well after the film’s ended. Police Chief Zheng doesn’t quite fulfil the scope of the character and Du Yuan feels underused playing him. 

A good serial killer thriller absolutely needs the right atmosphere and cinematographer Cai Tao paints the landscape this magnificent, dull blue-grey that makes the town feel like one that’s seen enough and is now headed for its inevitable ruin, the constant and unforgiving rain only accelerating its inevitable demise. Composer Ding Ye brings an amazingly moody and atmospheric sound to the table that only helps further the dark atmosphere of the film. Editor Weng Jing keeps the film at a necessary steady pace that allow time for the characters to grow while giving the mystery at the crux sufficient time to develop and fester. 

“The Looming Storm” is an excellent example of the genre, though one that is criminally under-seen. The craft involved is of the highest order and the cast have all brought their A-game. Undoubtedly a film that deserves a much wider audience than it holds now.