At The Movies: Zhang Yimou’s Full River Red enthrals, Tom Hanks still affable in A Man Called Otto

Shen Teng (left) and Jackson Yee in Full River Red. PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT

Full River Red (NC16)

159 minutes, opens on Thursday

4 stars

The story: Zhang Yimou directs a 12th-century Song Dynasty mystery surrounding a visiting enemy state envoy, who is found murdered in his sleep on the eve of his meeting with the prime minister (Lei Jiayin). Most critically, a letter in his possession destined for the emperor goes missing.

Full River Red grossed more than four billion yuan (S$778 million) at the domestic box office.

The Chinese audience may have warmed to its nationalistic call for party loyalty, as the movie immortalises the famous poem titled Man Jiang Hong, attributed to patriotic general Yue Fei.

Or perhaps this historical comedy whodunnit has surpassed Cliff Walkers (2021) to be the biggest commercial success in Chinese Fifth Generation auteur Zhang’s 35-year career simply because it is such wily entertainment with clever wordplay and excellent performances.

Pop idol Jackson Yee and comedian Shen Teng are the starring duo of an ambitious battalion commander and his lowly soldier nephew, whose oafishness is a cover for a strategic mind.

They are tasked with tracking down the letter under the watch of two scheming officials (Zhang Yi and Yue Yunpeng).

A nerve-shredding soundtrack of electronica folk songs hurries them along from one interrogation to another within a confined military compound. The suspects, primarily a comely dancer (Wang Jiayi), all end up dead.

Their first hour of slapstick gives way to suspenseful plot reversals once the political conspiracy comes fuller into view.

This thriller recalls the director’s 2018 masterpiece Shadow in its labyrinthine dynastic intrigues as well as elegant inky visuals – which befit a story that plays out in real time over two pre-dawn hours.

At daybreak, should the pair of unwitting heroes fail in their mission, they will be executed.

Hot take: Jingoism aside, history is retold as an enthralling blockbuster.

A Man Called Otto (NC16)

Tom Hanks in A Man Called Otto. PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

126 minutes, opens on Thursday

3 stars

The story: Sweden’s 2015 Academy Award nominee A Man Called Ove, based on the 2012 bestseller of the same name, has been relocated to suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Starring in this American update is Tom Hanks as misanthropic Otto Anderson, whose life gets upended by the arrival of a rambunctious immigrant family across the street.

Cranky retiree Otto of the comedy A Man Called Otto is the self-appointed neighbourhood watchdog, snarling at every “idiot” in his housing complex for failing to either parallel park neatly or recycle correctly.

No one seems offended, clearly because he or she recognises the actor to be Hanks.

Indeed, faster than they can say “Hollywood’s favourite nice guy”, Mexican chatterbox Marisol (Mariana Trevino) has pulled up with her husband (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and two young daughters to begin melting away Otto’s hard facade with her sunniness and homemade tamales.

Dewy flashbacks, featuring Hanks’ son Truman Hanks as a young Otto, explain how Otto came to be a grouch, how his depression has deepened since the death of his beloved wife (Rachel Keller), and there is a running gag of Marisol’s unannounced visits interrupting his repeated suicide attempts.

Mexican stage actress Trevino is cute. But so well-established is Hanks’ benign persona, it sabotages his effort to play against type. It also lessens the dramatic friction in this story of a curmudgeon redeemed by his community’s affection. He later unites the kooky neighbours to fight off real estate developers, while befriending a teen and a stray cat.

The director is Marc Forster of Monster’s Ball (2001). For sure, his saccharine movie is not hard to like, if only because he is a pro at manipulating heartstrings and Hanks cannot help but be affable however ill-suited for his role here.

Hot take: There is no believing Forrest Gump as a fogey grump.

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