April 10, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Mandarin with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Tianjin, China, in the year 1146, the comedy/action film “Full River Red” (loosely based on some real-life historical figures) features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.
Culture Clash: A deputy commander and a soldier get involved in a political conspiracy that includes spying, murder and a rivalry between the Song dynasty and the Jin dynasty.
Culture Audience: “Full River Red” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching convoluted but comedic spy thrillers based on ancient history.
“Full River Red” is a fictional action political thriller with inspiration from China’s ancient history. The comedy is cheeky and sometimes silly, but it works because of the right tone set by the energetic direction and the cast members’ performances. It’s not always easy to have jokes in a violent spy movie, but “Full River Red” accomplishes that intention.
Directed by Zhang Yimou (who co-wrote “Full River Red” with Chen Yu), “Full River Red” is a little too long (159 minutes) and could have had a better and tighter narrative if it didn’t go off on a few unnecessary tangents. Despite these flaws, viewers who like twist-filled mysteries with plenty of action should remain interested. However, this movie is not for people who don’t like plots that have the potential to be confusing.
The two central characters in “Full River Red” (which takes place in China in the year 1146) are Sun Jun (played by Jackson Yee) and Zhang Da (played by Shen Teng), who are part of a tried-and-true action movie formula of a older man paired with a younger man, and they often clash with each other as they learn to work together. Jun is a recently promoted deputy commander of a guard battalion, while Da is a new soldier for the Chinese army, and he doesn’t have any ranking yet. “Full River Red” goes against stereotypes by having the younger man (Jun) with the higher ranking in this seemingly mismatched duo.
At this point in time, there is a fierce rivalry between the Song dynasty and the Jin dynasty. A murder has recently occurred in the home of Song dynasty grand chancellor/prime minsiter Qin Hui (played by Lei Jiayin), and there is a conspiracy to cover up who committed murder. Meanwhile, Da gets captured by Wang Biao (played by Guo Jingfei), commander of the house battalion, who forces Da to become a spy for the Song dynasty. Da is placed under the command of Jun, as they work to find an informant who has an important letter.
The rest of the movie shows various encounters in this caper, with a lot of the comedy coming from Jun and Da having contrasting personalities. Jun is impulsive and more likely to start a fight, while Da is more level-headed and more likely to want to outwit someone with negotiating and a clever plan. Other characters in the movie include the villainous He Li (played by Zhang Yi), who is a lord and a general manager of the grand chancellor bureau; a dancer named Zither (played by Wang Jiayi), who becomes Da’s love interest; Wu Yichun (played by Yue Yunpeng), the vice general manager of the grand chancellor bureau; and Liu Xi (played by Yu Ailei) a peasant horseman, who has a pivotal role in the story.
Describing more of the movie would be giving away too many spoiler details. But it’s enough to say that people who like “unlikely partner” movies will find a lot to like about “Full River Red,” since the performances of Yee and Teng as Jun and Da are charismatic anchors of this occasionally repetitive movie that has above-average cinemataography. Some of the violence in “Full River Red” will be too intense for some viewers. “Full River Red” is not a groundbreaking film by any means, but it’s an entertaining portrayal of spies and political intrigue in ancient China.
Edko Films Ltd. released “Full River Red” in select U.S. cinemas on March 17, 2023.