The powder and the glory

September 15, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Is it still 1939 in China?

How else to explain the following phenomenon: The Chinese are the only ones in the world still making great movies. Nobody else has the ferocity of will, the depth of passion, the refined skill, the vast resources of a sublimely gifted performing community, and the width of vision to pump out routinely films of the very highest quality.

But, surprisingly, "Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker," which opens today at the Charles, was directed by neither Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige, to name two who've broken out to world acclaim (for "Red Sorghum" and "The Last Concubine," respectively). No, its principal auteur is He Ping, directing his third film.

Though tonally different, it will feel achingly the same as the work of masters Zhang and Chen. It's another broadly scaled, beautifully mounted story of passion played out against a lost world whose rituals and expectations it manages to make vividly clear to us. It has a certain mythical heaviness to it, an archetypal feel, while at the same time being rooted totally in the authentic.

The scene is rural China at the turn of the century, where a wandering artist named Nie Bao (Wu Gang) finds himself deposited after an arduous journey down the Yellow River at a stone town stinking of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. He has blundered into Fireworks Capital of the Kingdom, where for centuries the enterprising Cai family has manufactured the 'crackers, pinwheels and rockets that make the Fourth of July jump -- except, of course, there is no Fourth of July but only an endless litany of fireworks-intensive ceremonies.

The Cais have therefore become rich and powerful and hold sway over the surrounding region. But this is an odd moment in family history: The old men have died off without sons and the current "Master" is Chun Zhi (Ning Jing), a beautiful young woman who has awkwardly inherited CEO status and is trying to bluff her way through her suddenly oppressive duty. Among other grotesque obligations, she seems not to be allowed to be a woman.

She needs an artist to decorate the plant for upcoming holidays; he needs a gig. One look and -- shazam! Instant fireworks between them.

Of course, this totally destabilizes the carefully balanced gyroscope of society and sets in motion whole fleets of minions to break up the offending lovers, who so far haven't so much as touched. (She has chastely visited him in his quarters). Soon his self-decreed competitor -- actually a toady of the factory manager Mr. Mann (Zhao Xiaorui) -- has staked his claim to Chun's affections and is plotting against the artist, who, after all, merely wants to paint pictures of fish.

How dynamic all this is! How real, how passionate, how pungent! Who could imagine such a world in all its details? And the last stroke is the most audacious: a "firework duel" between the two men, one of the most oddly conceived contests in movie history. These guys try to out-gut each other by detonating giant 'crackers against various parts of their anatomy. We are truly on another planet.

"Red Firecracker,Green Firecracker"

Starring Ning Jing and Wu Gang

Directed by He Ping

Released by October Films

Unrated

*** 1/2

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