Chinese Reviews Media Partners Reviews Udine Far East Film Festival

Film Review: Moscow Mission (2023) by Herman Yau

"You said we should look back having lived a good life"

Incredibly prolific director presents his fourth film of the 2023, “Moscow Mission”, after “The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell”, “Death Notice” and “Raid on the Lethal Zone”. Yau has turned into a bona fide master of action and this last effort is a bombastic take on the true story of a series of violent robberies in 1993 on the Beijing-Moscow train and the Chinese mission to eradicate them and capture the robbers. It's not the first film dealing with these particular incidents; Michael Mak had directed The Train Robbers in 1995, and there is also a more recent 31-episode online drama, directed by Zhang Rui. has curated the screenplay, incorporating as much action set pieces as possible, although, maybe at the expense of the script's fluidity.

Moscow Mission is screening at UdineFar East Film Festival 2024

It's 1993 and the economy situation in China and Russia is in a state of great confusion. China is booming but Russia is sliding towards chaos and rich Chinese traders are rushing to Russia on the “K3/4” Beijing-Moscow train to take advantage of amazing bargains, and obviously this also attract robbers and scammers. The film starts with a fast-paced robbery to the said trainline, operated by a vicious Chinese gang following the indications of sexy accomplice Zhenzhen () who had previously scouted the train to identify the best, cash-rich targets. This robbery risks to compromise the political relations between Russia and China and something must be done to stop and arrest the gangsters. When the captain of the Railway Police Cui Zhenhai () captures a minor member of the gang and extorts some names from him, he is consequently assigned to a special undercover mission in Moscow. Together with a small undercover team composed of newbie and graduate of the Public Security University Sun Jiandong (), and Inner Mongolian CID officer Kazimir Gang (), and posing as businessmen and debt collectors, they will hopefully bring back all the robbers to China for punishment.

Things get messy in Moscow as the gang's members try to deceive each other; gangster Whisker () is looking to go into business on his own; Zhenzhen, who is a relationship with Whisker, flirts with mysterious businessman and fellow southerner Vasily, aka Liu Yuhu (), and elusive boss D, aka Miao Qingshan () and once Vasily's partner in crime, plans to rob the exclusive Water Palace Casino and escape through the city's sewer system that runs underneath the gambling house. To do so, he forces Vasily to join him once more, holding his young little daughter as a hostage.

Check the interview with the director

Herman Yau directs a big budget, 100% Mainland financed production as a straightforward heist movie, full of over-the-top action, CGI and engaging music. To do so, he got his regular Hong Kong crew onboard, like DOP , action director and musician and all the technical credits of “Moscow Mission” are spot on. In fact, visually, the film is an eye-candy; the 1993 setting has allowed some charming aesthetic choices, like the bright, yellow-tinted colour hue that reminds you of an old postcard, and a number of interesting low-tech props, telephones, cassettes, cars etc. Moreover, one of the best assets of “Moscow Mission” is the variety of spectacular locations; first of all the train, but also the sewage maize under the Casino, some abandoned and rusty factories, grand palaces, and all the grandeur and the former splendor of the Soviet Union. And yet – this is an interesting trivia – the film is not filmed in Moscow, and neither in Russia, but in Harbin, Northern China. This unique city experienced a significant growth during the late 19th century, under the influx of the Russian engineers involved in the construction of the eastern segment of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and, consequently, its architectural heritage is unequivocally Russian in style.

Yau's trademark action scenes are excellent, and some rather memorable. Among them, a car chase in the city at night-time with a spectacular climax, a motorbike chase and shooting in the underground drainage system, a car chasing a fighter jet (yes!), and the grand finale, where an entire train is held hostage in a wheel-changing railway shed. However, what lets the film down is a confusing and hard-to-follow script, with too many unfinished sub plots and some unidimensional characters. Vasily, for example, seems to be in the story only for the sake of having Andy Lau onboard and on the film poster, but his bad-but-virtuous character is not convincing, and it's certainly not one of Lau's best performances. On the contrary, Mainland star Zhang Hanyu as Cui Zhenhai is quite captivating, despite his always-imperturbable face, and Huang Xuan as D displays an impressive array of psycho poses, but not always plausible; his disguise at the Shostakovich concert is quite preposterous. A running time of about two hours is now the norm, but Moscow Mission could have benefited of some cuts for a snappier and shorter treatment.  

To summarise, “Moscow Mission”, despite a dubious script and an excessive length, is still an enjoyable action thriller, benefiting from its original post-USSR setting and staggering locations, and its breath-taking action scenes.

About the author

Adriana Rosati

On paper I am an Italian living in London, in reality I was born and bread in a popcorn bucket. I've loved cinema since I was a little child and I’ve always had a passion and interest for Asian (especially Japanese) pop culture, food and traditions, but on the cinema side, my big, first love is Hong Kong Cinema. Then - by a sort of osmosis - I have expanded my love and appreciation to the cinematography of other Asian countries. I like action, heroic bloodshed, wu-xia, Shaw Bros (even if it’s not my specialty), Anime, and also more auteur-ish movies. Anything that is good, really, but I am allergic to rom-com (unless it’s a HK rom-com, possibly featuring Andy Lau in his 20s)"

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