Director: Ding Sheng
Writer: Ding Sheng
Cast: Andy Lau, Liu Ye, Wu Ruofu, Wang Qianyuan, Lam Suet, Zhao Xiaoyue, Vivien Li, Cai Lu, Yu Ailei
Running Time: 106 min.
Andy Lau walks out of a nightclub, signs autographs, and waves to his fans. The onscreen text reads, ‘Mr. Wu, Famous Movie Star.’ (I laughed, though I can’t really explain why.) Soon we learn that famous movie star Mr. Wu is known for playing cops and used to perform concerts in years past. It’s as if Andy Lau (Firestorm) is getting a chance to play a thinly-veiled version of himself. And though ‘The Andy Lau Story’ might’ve made for an entertaining film in its own right, in actuality Lau is playing a dramatized version of real-life actor, Ruofu Wu, who in 2004 was abducted by men posing as police officers and held for ransom.
In the film, Mr. Wu leaves the nightclub and is heading to his car when he’s intercepted by men in police uniform who begin to question him. They tell him that his car’s been involved in a hit-and-run. Wu and his associate argue this, then there’s some disagreement about whether Wu’s Hong Kong driver’s license is even legal in Mainland China. It’s at this point, when the civilian knows the law better than the cop, that Wu and his associate begin to question the cop’s legitimacy. Before they know what’s happening, guns are drawn, Wu is handcuffed, and the actor is thrown into the back of a waiting car.
It’s a crime of opportunity. The kidnappers are well-equipped men with enough experience in abduction for ransom, but they seem to pick their targets at random. They simply saw Wu’s fancy car and decided he’d be the target for the night. When it turned out that Mr. Wu was the car’s owner, they couldn’t back out. Quite the opposite, as their leader Zhang puts it: “How could we not kidnap a movie star standing right in front of us?” They demand a ransom and unless Wu’s able to organize a payment within 24 hours, they will execute him.
The film bounces back and forth between the kidnappers, the abducted Mr. Wu, and the cops on the case. It also shifts between the time before the kidnapping, during the incident, and after a key arrest is made. Writer/director/editor Ding Sheng used flashbacks to flesh out the story of his previous film Police Story: Lockdown and while I liked that movie I thought the flashback structure didn’t help the story. So it’s interesting that the non-linear storytelling structure of Saving Mr. Wu is actually one of the film’s finest achievements. Details unfold in the order that best befits the story being told, and if that means jumping back weeks in time to better understand our characters then so be it.
The weakest part of Saving Mr. Wu is the police characterizations. They’re a force to be reckoned with (thankfully without ever devolving into hero worship), but they’re never developed into individual characters. The lead cop gets a phone call from his wife about his son and… that’s it. The son is brought up once more in order to add some drama right before the cop runs into danger but that’s just lazy character development. However, while none of the cops ever make much of an impression individually, their part to play in the story as they track down the kidnappers is often interesting and exciting. I didn’t know this until after the film was done but Ruofu Wu, the actor whose ordeal inspired the film, actually has a supporting part as one of the cops on the case.
Saving Mr. Wu is at its best when focused on the interplay between the abducted and the abductors. Wu utilizes his acting abilities to control his emotions and ultimately try to take command of the entire situation. It’s one of Andy Lau’s best performances in years, allowing him to show a wide range of emotions with total believability.
As the lead kidnapper Zhang, Wang Qianyuan (Brotherhood of Blades) nearly steals the show from superstar Andy Lau. Zhang is quite the character. His criminal tactics are cold and efficient but he’s also something of a lunatic. He never goes anywhere without a hand grenade and collects guns like he’s preparing for a war. Wang Qianyuan is the best thing about the movie—it’s a star-making performance. He never goes for the easy stuff that you see other film villains employ. It’s a smart, intense acting job.
The back-and-forth plays for leverage between Wu and Zhang reminded me of the Paul Greengrass film Captain Phillips, especially in the second half where Tom Hanks was surrounded by increasingly desperate kidnappers. It’s an actor’s showcase for Wang and Lau.
As Mainland China’s film industry continues to expand, it will need more auteurs to elevate at least certain pieces of China’s cinema above the mainstream, government approved blockbusters that seem designed by a computer program more than living, breathing filmmakers. It will need more people like Ding Sheng. Now, Ding Sheng ain’t perfect, but what I like is that he seems to learn from the missteps made on previous films. And he consistently gets strong work from his lead actors, at least some of whom are old-school favorites from the days when Hong Kong movie-making was at its best. I think Saving Mr. Wu is Ding Sheng’s best film so far; a blend of China’s arthouse dramas and its potboilers, with two excellent performances from its lead actors.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7.5/10