Southern China, in early 1997. A serial killer is murdering women and dumping them in the muddy grassland of an industrial area. The bodies pile up, to the bafflement of local police. From the side-lines, a security guard for a nearby steel factory called Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong), offers to assist the under-staffed police in the case. Incorruptible and efficient at his job, Yu is a model worker, rewarded with an “employee of the year” award, to which his reaction is to reiterate his commitment to keep on improving, to keep making security better. But the award is only for show, and Yu is soon cast aside along with the majority of workers soon after, as the state-owned company shuts down. It is at this point that his desire to catch the culprit, at first seemingly driven by an innocent eagerness to serve, turns into blind obsession. While still employed, his methods are earnest, if a little naïve in their ambition: rounding up the factory workers to collect all their testimonies; re-visiting the scene of the crime in the hope, soon dashed, that the killer will come back to the site of his “success”. At least, they demonstrate greater optimism than the police can muster.
His first success occurs when he abandons his post at the plant for several days to stake out a nearby steel works. With his sidekick, he spots and chases a suspect in a scene worthy of The Chaser, Korean crime drama where the main character, an ex-detective turned pimp, also takes on the role of vigilante in the face of brutal serial murders and spends a good deal of time running in the gloom after a hooded figure. The encounter ends in tragedy and is the first step in a tragic downward spiral. Once laid off and faced with the prospect of idleness, his hunting strategies grow increasingly twisted, to the point of using Yanzi (Jang Yiyan), a pretty prostitute with whom he has struck a friendship, as bait. He spends his days staking out the honey trap, peering across the murky streets. At this point, he is more interested in closure than truth. Inevitably, his search culminates in desperate brutality.
Set to a background of transition – the end of the communist era, the imminent retrocession of Hong Kong to Chinese control – Dong Yue’s film captures the bleakness of a time of uncertainty and social violence both collective and individual. Factory workers, supposedly in control of the means of production, are laid off en masse. Corruption mines the company security team, allowing thefts to pass unpunished. Now unemployed men turn their anger to women, hitting prostitutes, beating their wives to death. A recurring motif of vehicles breaking down adds to the sense that everything is falling apart. The industrial setting, with its creaking black towers, is an alien environment. Over all this the rain pours down, unrelenting. By contextualising the events in this way, Dong Yue successfully turns his film noir into an allegory of the times. In fact, The Looming Storm is a literal translation of the original Chinese title, referring to the impending social crisis that marked the transition away from communism. The French distributor chose to change it to “An Endless Rain” (Une Pluie Sans Fin), a more descriptive choice which seems to me just as fitting, for the effects of the storm to pass are already being felt.
Apt comparisons have been made to Se7en, with regard to Dong Yue’s commitment to a bleak grey-green-black colour scheme and an oppressive atmosphere, and to Memories of Murder, the excellent Korean crime thriller, for its commentary on social transition and police ineffectiveness. While The Looming Storm fails to rise to the level of these classics of the genre, because of a drop in pace in its second half, and a couple of outlandish or overly dramatic plot twists, it produced a similar sense of unease that I struggled to shake off even an hour after leaving the cinema.