Named after one of China’s most famous poems––one the film says the nation can still recite by memory today––Zhang Yimou’s Full River Red takes us back to the Southern Song Dynasty, four years after Prime Minister Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin) framed legendary general Yue Fei and had him executed to solidify a newly formed alliance with their enemies, the Jin Dynasty. The poem is attributed to Fei despite discrepancies which some believe push its origins well past his death. As such, Zhang and co-writer Yu Chen use artistic license to concoct an elaborate suspense comedy (yes, comedy) to confirm it via the fictionalized surviving witnesses of his martyrdom: true patriots who refuse to forget what happened and those they’d risk everything to murder and avenge their hero.

They’re all at the border for a planned meeting between Song and Jin leadership. Before it can start, however, a Jin ambassador is discovered murdered. The heavy-handed Sun Jun (Yee Jackson) begins scouring the fort for the assassin, rounding up suspects and slitting necks to scare someone worthy of the Prime Minister’s attention. He settles on his older-than-him, buffoon of a nephew Zhang Da (Shen Teng)––the perfect combination of scapegoat and unorthodox detective to find a lead. Qin Hui’s trusted, cutthroat lords He (Zhang Yi) and Wu (Yue Yunpeng) enter with ulterior motives as supervisors once Zhang Da is freed, with a two-hour ultimatum, under Sun Jun’s care: find the killer and retrieve a secret letter meant for the emperor, or die as the presumed culprit.

The hunt begins and Zhang seeks to procure answers via dialogue, playing suspects against themselves until they give up a clue, while Sun gravitates towards force. Sometimes He and Wu arrive to expedite matters, but nephew and uncle are often one step ahead to ensure they follow their lead (even if the manipulations necessary to do so are more about buying time for their own survival than they are to getting closer to the truth). Because this duo knows its fate. Regardless of being privy to the content, one cannot be witness to a secret letter’s existence and live to see tomorrow. Their only shot at self-preservation is therefore to find it, discover the contents (reading a letter bound for the emperor’s eyes is punishable by death), and destroy it––becoming too invaluable to kill.

That’s the game. And all four players (Zhang, Sun, He, and Wu) will act alone despite needing one or more of the others to advance. Who gets the letter first? Who betrays who? What side are they actually on? The film rapidly progresses via unspecified chapters, a rock song and overhead tracking shot providing a segue for every new mystery as clues are discerned. First, everything points to the dancer who last saw the ambassador alive (Wang Jiayi’s Zither). Then a night watchman who neglected his duties (Pan Binlong’s Ding). Then the man in charge of the fort’s safety (Gu Jingfei’s Wang). Add subterfuge, yet-unknown motives, and double-dealings behind-the-scenes and the whole becomes like a soap opera with wall-to-wall melodrama playing out.

This is why you must be aware that Zhang Yimou’s latest is a comedy. From Shen Teng constantly devolving into court jester antics or crocodile tears to Zhang Yi hitting everyone with his fan so they will hurry up and get to the point of their dialogue, the humor can prove as entertaining as it is distracting from the otherwise-serious suspense thriller unfolding beneath. So for every person who finds the tone a welcome inclusion that helps make this two-and-a-half-hour mystery feel a whole lot breezier than you expect, there’s bound to be another who cannot separate what appears to be surface distraction from a highly convoluted tapestry of convenient twists and turns. Most will surely fall in the middle––like me.

Because some revelations are obvious while others come out of left field with rug pulls that negate an hour of speculation. That’s part of the fun. Things are moving so fast that an abrupt shift in focus can reinvigorate interest and lead you down a completely different path of hypotheses. We start to like those we hated and hate those we liked as new information comes to light, but we never forget they’re all expendable. Even if we’re pulling for Zhang Da, we know Sun Jun will kill him to advance his career. And even though we know Wu is the lesser of the two lords, there’s no telling how far he’ll go to get one up on He when it comes to saving his own skin.

Full River Red looks great, recalling the elaborate production design of Zhang’s previous hits Hero and House of Flying Daggers despite its cinematography and action being completely different. Shot mostly in cramped rooms with curtains hiding identities and topics of conversation locked behind doors, the visuals remain intimate beyond the aforementioned segues and some glimpses of an army waiting outside. The handful of fights are quick and efficient, the action dictated by dialogue and second-guessing with the four main players weighing their options for keeping breath in their lungs and motives on target. Because the culprit will be discovered in the first 30 minutes and the letter in the first 90. They’re merely our entry points into the clandestine rebellion of Zhang’s historical mythologizing.

Full River Red opens in North American theaters on Friday, March 17.

Grade: B

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