I'm not quite at that point where I can keep track of individual directors yet, but looking back at the films Yi Huang made, it's not too big of a surprise he ended up being the first one to crack the code. Lamb Game [Gao Yang You Xi] is the first Chinese streamer flick I consider a genuine genre masterpiece, a dense and accomplished little genre flick, trimmed of all the fat and delivering in the departments that matter. It's way too soon to call it a trend, this could just be a random outlier, but I'm hopeful that more will follow in his footsteps. The writing's been on the wall for a while now.
For the past five or six years, I've been immersing myself in the world of Chinese streamers. It's not the most glamorous cinematic niche, but as a genre fan, there is lots to discover there. While the plots and settings may be incredibly repetitive and it can be difficult to keep individual films apart, there has been a noticeable increase in quality. Taking that final step has been challenging though, as short runtimes, limited budgets, and meager aspirations (these films are just shelf filler for streaming companies after all) have been difficult hurdles to overcome.
With Lamb Game, Huang made some smart choices. He has limited the need for CG (something that has greatly hampered their fantasy output), he changed the setting around (not that the film is very original, but it's relatively new for a Chinese streamer film) and he invested a bit more effort into the cinematography, making sure every frame oozes style. The result is a mini Die Hard infused with heroic bloodshed vibes and a kick-ass female lead. Everything is kept small and contained, so there is no unnecessary budget spill, and no superfluous padding.
The plot is extremely basic, but that's just so it won't get in the way of the actual fun. A crime deal gone wrong runs out of hand when the buyer calls the cops on the robbers. When they escape they tear up a wedding, killing the groom on their way out. Several years later the widow runs into the killers again when she forgets her archery gear after a lesson. The thieves are conducting another deal in the same building, and everyone gets locked in when the doors close for the night. A blind martial arts master living in the building is her only chance of escape.
Visually these streamer films have always struggled because of an excessive amount of bad to mediocre CG. Take that away and what remains are bold colors, dynamic camera work, and snappy editing. Exactly what a moody action thriller like this requires. The lighting in particular stands out, helped by the indoor setting, giving Huang and his crew maximum control over the look of the film. I guess that look may be a bit too flashy for some, but as someone who appreciates maximalist styling, this is far better than I could've expected from a simple genre flick. A bit like what you'd get when Hong Kong genre cinema was at its prime (early 90s).
In contrast (and as could be expected), the soundtrack is a lot less interesting. It's there to support the atmosphere in certain scenes, but it never really actively participates. It's background filler that signals a tense moment, or an action scene, but it's not as if it wouldn't have been obvious without some rather generic tunes attached to these scenes. It's not a big loss, Huang doesn't really aspire to turn this into a full-blown Johnnie To competitor, but looking at how much effort went into the visuals, you'd think a better score would be considered low-hanging fruit in order to further pimp the film.
The cast isn't too bad, though their job is rather limited. The characters are all broad caricatures with very little character progression in sight. Only the lead goes from a token woman in need to the hero of the day, but that's not exactly a riveting transformation. Lam Suet is there in one of the supporting roles, which is a nice bonus, the main cast isn't quite as well known. But within the limits of the film, they do a pretty solid job regardless. Just don't expect to find the next Tony Leung or Andy Lau here, that kind of talent just isn't present.
Lamb Game is simple genre fare, and it never aspires to be anything more than that. This clearly was a smart choice, as it allowed Huang to focus on the basics, rather than bend backward trying to elevate the film beyond its capabilities. After a short setup, the film quickly moves to its main setting, where the rest of the plot plays out. There are no major surprises along the way, no big twists or shifts in tone. Instead, the film does its best to deliver a tense and visually pleasing cat-and-mouse game, supported by a handful of powerful action scenes.
Little by little, these Chinese streamer films have been upping their game. Not by attempting to mimic their blockbuster peers, but by polishing the simple genre delights that are more easily attainable for them. Lamb Game is the first film I see to get it entirely right (though there might have been others, it's an impossible niche to keep track of as a Westerner). The lush cinematography, the moody setting, and the hyper-focus on what makes a good action thriller tick make this a condensed bundle of genre fun. Don't expect the world of Lamb Game, but if you can get your hands on it and you're in the mood for some slick entertainment, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better choice.