There used to be a time when a new Yimou Zhang project was big international news. Nowadays it's just a blip on the radar, if it even registers at all. It doesn't seem to bother Zhang too much though, as he still enjoys a healthy reputation in his home country. Under the Light [Jian Ru Pan Shi] is his latest work, and people who love Yimou Zhang for his maximalist, colorful cinematography should take note, as this is one of the most lit (hah) films to date. I'm not sure if there will be proper international distribution for this one, but fans should certainly make an effort.
Zhang has had a pretty rich career so far, moving between different genres and different styles with relative ease. Some love him for his martial arts films, others prefer his social dramas. What ties his oeuvre together is his love for lush, colorful cinematography, often dictated by the use of strong primary colors. And what is color but different frequencies of light? Rather than plaster the screen with mere bright colors, this time Zhang focused more on lighting to brighten up what is otherwise a relatively simple crime flick. As someone with a soft spot for maximalist styling, I didn't mind at all.
A fair warning though, if you're allergic to Chinese propaganda, it might be better to skip this film altogether. Not that it is too overt, but it is a Chinese crime film and that means that it needs to adhere to the current censorship rules. The bad guys must lose, and these films invariably end with a little message explaining how prompt action and effective law-making have helped to push back crime in China. The film is based on true events and the plot isn't that different from other crime films, but the short outro leaves little to the imagination. China wants you to know what a great job it did.
Su is the adopted son of a respected mayor. He is part of the police force and desperately wants to prove himself to his father. When he attends a banquet organized by Li, a wealthy and influential businessman (against the better judgment of his father), things start to go sideways. Soon after the mayor becomes the target of a well-planned hit. Su and his partner claim the case and soon realize that Li is behind the hit. The problem is that Li has covered his tracks like a true professional. Su isn't willing to give up that easily, but as he digs deeper into Li's past, he unearths more than he bargained for.
So, the visuals! Where to even begin? Zhang made it his goal to explore "light", and boy, did he make an effort. Of course, overexposure is a thing here, and so is neon, but there is so much more going on. Thanks to the use of reflections (glass and liquids became useful companions) Zhang gets light in the most unlikely of places. Multi-colored lighting is virtually everywhere, and each frame is just brimming with color. This is one of the few films where I could've just made screencaps at random and they still would've represented the film without flaw. Zhang is at his best when he lets the visuals speak, and Under the Light doesn't disappoint.
The soundtrack is the polar opposite, but that's no real surprise either. As dominant as the visuals are, the music mostly resides in the background, minding its own business. It's not a particularly bad or offensive score, it just doesn't add much to the film. It's there to mask any voids and provide some light background tension. I wish Chinese cinema would pay a bit more attention to their scores, it's such a (relatively) easy way to upgrade a film, but Zhang kind of gets away with it because the visuals are just so damn gorgeous. Still, there's room for improvement here.
The performances are also a little lacking. Jiayin Lei is good as the young detective and Dongyu Zhou is always a delight, but her part is relatively minor. Guoli Zhang isn't very convincing as the mayor though, and Hewei Yu could've done a lot better as the slick businessman/bad guy. He reminded me a little of Francis Ng, only without Ng's trademark mix of class and edge. The rest of the cast is negligible, failing to make a real impact. Much like the score, it's not too much of a problem, but it's minor details like this that keep this film from becoming one of Zhang's best.
There are some proper twists and turns to keep you occupied, Zhang also makes sure he balances out the political and crime aspects with some action, but for people who are familiar with modern Chinese crime cinema, the film holds few surprises. Not in the least because factual censorship laws prescribe how these tales must end, and Zhang is known to be a fine follower of the usual Chinese hand-wringing. If you dislike the fact that the film is part propaganda then you're surely going to hate the ending. Then again, even without the censors, films like this all tend to end in very similar ways.
Take away the cinematography and Yimou Zhang's latest is a decent, but somewhat plain crime film. Then again, why would you choose to eliminate a director's biggest strength? Under the Light is pure visual bliss, a film that bathes in color and light and leaves no frame untouched to explore the limits of how far you can push the cinematography. It's a film that fits Zhang like a glove and enriches his oeuvre in ways previously unexplored. Fans of visual splendor would do well to chase this one, others need to be a bit more reserved, but if you like crime cinema, this is a straightforward recommendation.