QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM SAN SEBASTIAN
A serial killer assassinates taxi drivers in the fictional and very ugly city of Fentun, located in deeply industrialised and impoverished Northeast of China. There is no apparent motif, yet the crimes persist without arrest and resolution. The killer strangles the drivers with a rope from the seat behind them and then proceeds to burn their cars. One lucky survivor reports that the culprit is a bulky 40-something-year-old with an elongated face, but that’s as much he can remember. There are no further clues.
Fei (Ting Mei), a young woman who dreams of moving south to a warmer place, and her father Li (Minghao Chen) get caught in the middle police investigation, in a web of suspicion and myriad characters with limited function, including a gang of car thieves. The investigating officer turns out to be Fei’s childhood friend. The film is broken down into roughly two halves. The first part of the takes place in the dark and snowy month of December 1997, when the murder spree takes place. Then a very strange car crash and the manslaughter of a cop send the hapless duo into hiding, in some sort of confusing “wrong man” film trope.
The second half takes place in 2005, when a rapid succession of events continues to reshape the father-daughter relationship, with the serial murder plot becoming mostly secondary. A prosthetic limb, a morphine addiction, a half-baked romance and yet another bizarre car crash drive the narrative arc forward on a journey as bumpy as roads where the taxi driver murders take place.
The film title refers to an encounter between Fei and her cop friend intended to take place by a fireplace on the the plain on New Year’s eve, 1998. Neither one of them showed up. Or did they? An ambiguous and mostly incoherent explanation is offered at the end of the story. Sadly it isn’t just the environment that’s foggy. So is the story. Gradually, this muddled up crime thriller morphs into a snoozefest. Silly twists and turns take the story nowhere, and the ending neither offers closure nor inspires reflection.
The sombre and elegant cinematography deserves credit for conveying a palpable sense of despondency and solitude. But that isn’t enough to keep you awake for nearly two hours.
Fire on the Plain is showing in Competition at the 69th San Sebastian International Film Festival. The film is based on a novel and it has been hailed as Zhang’s magnum opus. I haven’t seen his previous films; I just hope they are a little less disjointed.