In the Chinese film noir The Looming Storm (2017), set in a rain-soaked, thunderous Hunan industrial zone, the two protagonists liken their present realities to dreaming.
At a 1996-97 factory employee awards ceremony, security guard Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong), a would-be detective who’s just won an award, says the experience is “like something out of a dream.” Much later, Yanzi (Jiang Yiyan), a former prostitute demoralized by her friend Yu’s actions, says to him, “I feel like I’ve been living in a dream. Suddenly, everything’s become unreal … I’ve woken up, but you’re still dreaming. I’m leaving this place.” The way she casually leaves delivers the film’s biggest shock.
But how seriously should we take Yanzi’s departure? Does she even exist? All the talk about dreams intensifies the oneiric nature of The Looming Storm, which is the riveting directorial debut of Dong Yue. Watching the film—ultimately an allegory about economic change in an end-of-millennium China—is itself akin to dreaming.
Partly because it carries the viewer along in a hypnotized state, partly because the resolution to the murder spree asks more questions than it answers, the movie leaves viewers wondering “what just happened?” and scrambling to put the pieces together. This is not unsatisfying; the experience of leaving the theater after watching The Looming Storm is like waking from the murkiest—indeed, muddiest—of nightmares.
A competition entry in the current New York Asian Film Festival, The Looming Storm follows Yu’s hubristic efforts to help the police capture a vicious serial killer of young women, to the annoyance of a worn-out veteran detective (Du Yuan). Yu gloomily recalls the case after he leaves prison in 2008 on completion of a 10-year sentence. His haunted memories are unspooled as an extended flashback.
It’s evident that Yu’s recollections are unreliable and probably mingled with fantasies. The beautiful Yanzi, for example, turns up abruptly half an hour in wearing a sheer black blouse and a pink mini-skirt—she could well be a figment of Yu’s overheated imagination; everything else he sees is drab. Having gone to prison after failing to catch the serial killer, Yu may have constructed her as a glamorous fallen woman he wanted to rescue from a life of prostitution and violence.
If she is a fantasy figure, it’s likely she was inspired by a dancehall hooker Yu twice meets during his investigation and who laughs cruelly at him on the second occasion. Far from cruel, Yanzi is serene and affectionate to Yu—a hooker with a heart of gold, in fact. He is no Philip Marlowe, but he is still her “knight in dark armor.”
The ‘rescue fantasy’ looms large in the male psyche. A man who imagines rescuing a prostitute essentially restores a sexualized mother figure to prelapsarian purity, thereby restoring his fantasy self to the immature pre-Oedipal phase. That’s where there’s no threat of emasculation by his father. It’s significant that Yu makes no attempt to have sex with Yanzi. She calls him to the girls’ kitchen in the brothel where she works and sensuously kisses him on the face and mouth, then questions why he is interested in her, her feminine intuition breaking into his reverie. The following exchange is the most jarring in the movie:
“What’s wrong?” Yu says.
“You like me?” Yanzi replies.
“Then why haven’t you tried to sleep with me?”
Her anger is prompted by her wounded pride, her suspicion by the realization that he has set her up in a hair salon as bait, enabling him to catch the serial killer. Yu’s fixation on the case and his self-designated role as a savior of young women may be his way of compensating for impotence.
On release from prison at the start of the film, he is asked for his name and mockingly translates “Yu-Guo-Wei” as “unnecessary remnant of a glorious nation.” He is one of the hundreds of employees who were laid off during Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji’s program of closing down many of the country’s debt-laden, state-owned enterprises from 1998 onwards. The loss of livelihoods made thousands impotent. (Zhu also combated the endemic corruption that has spread to Yu’s factory and in which his hapless assistant had participated in; for all his faults, Yu could not be ‘bought’).
No sooner has Yanzi spoken of her wish to leave her sordid life behind by moving to Hong Kong and opening a hair salon than Yu has set her up in the salon in ‘Little Hong Kong’ on a busy street close to three smelting plants. (It’s not clear where he got the money to do this). In the story he tells in his mind, Yu sees cuts on Yanzi’s arms—one of the killer’s trademarks—and places her in the salon believing the murderer will come after her again. He then stakes out the salon from the café across the street.
His transformation of Yanzi into ‘a good girl’ is reminiscent of Scotty (James Stewart) fetishistically transforming Judy Barton (Kim Novak) into the supposedly dead Madeleine Elster (Novak) in Vertigo (1958), the oneiric Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece that surely influenced Dong as it has influenced so many other directors.
The Looming Storm incorporates an astonishing chase sequence through the oppressively grey bones of the doomed “smelting plant number 4.” There is also, toward the end of the film, an alarming re-creation of the fate of the serial killer on the road to Yu’s factory, which doesn’t deign to explain the identity of a witness, a blurred figure at the furthest depth of the crucial shot. It’s possible that director Dong literally tried to pack too much into the frame—or that Yu, asked to visualize events that occurred 10 years before, positioned himself at the side of the road.
Dong’s impressive first film doesn’t reveal all its secrets or everything there is to know about Yu’s addled psychological state. Though grounded in the reality of recent Chinese history, it contrives to make many of the scenes seem like dreams within dreams. In this respect, it’s pure cinema.
The Looming Storm screens at 9.30pm on Monday, July 9 at Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY 10023. Tel: (212) 875-5600. Further information on the New York Asian Film Festival can be found here.