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Just One Film: "Fire on the Plain"

The impressive, noirish debut from Zhang Ji tells a fractured tale of a serial killer and troubled romance in China's northeast.
Caitlin Quinlan
Just One Film is a series that recommends individual films from festivals around the world—the movies you otherwise might have missed that deserve to be discovered.
Fire on the Plains
“These days you either sink or swim,” says Zhuang (Chen Minghao) to his rebellious teenage son Shu (Liu Haoran) in Zhang Ji’s slick cop noir Fire on the Plain. It’s a warning for a boy on the cusp of manhood, a sullen adolescent who has sauntered through life picking fights and entertaining his anger at any opportunity. He is not prepared for the climate of northeastern China in the late 1990s, politically or meteorologically. This is a land of bitter winds and failing factories, of lost jobs and economic downturn. People there dream of the south and its warm prospects. 
Shu is the focal point of Zhang’s debut feature film, an adaptation of novel Moses on the Plain by Shuang Xuetao and an impressive introduction to directing for a cinematographer who previously worked on Zhang Bingjian’s North by Northeast (2014). Tightly controlled, visually engaging, and layered with emotional drama, Fire on the Plain made a memorable premiere in the Official Competition of this year’s San Sebastian International Film Festival. What may seem like a rote police procedural—Shu is drawn into the work of undercover detective Jiang (Yuan Hong), who is investigating a recent series of taxi driver murders in the nearby Fentun district—is lifted beyond any genre trappings by Zhang’s adept weaving of socio-political concerns and a troubled romance narrative throughout the film. 
The killings are just one of many reasons why Shu’s neighborhood is in turmoil. Zhang’s film opens with a title card reading “December, 1997,” an especially challenging time for workers in China’s industrial northeast where the re-organization of many state-owned factories and enterprises led to worrying increases in unemployment. Shu’s neighbor, Li Shoulian (Wang Xuebing, Black Coal, Thin Ice), is one of the unlucky ones. Laid off from his job, prospects look bleak for him and his daughter Fei (Zhou Dongyu), who wants to move to the south of the country for work opportunities, while Shu’s family continue to thrive on his father’s corrupt dealings. Cinematographer Zhiyuan Chengma captures such dejection in muted tones of grey and the grime of green, lingering on flaking paint, piles of rubble on roadsides, and the town’s propensity for concrete. 
The taxi driver murders sit alongside this interpersonal drama. Shu’s petty criminal pursuits with the local boys mean he often crosses paths with Detective Jiang, who spends the rest of his police time posing as a taxi driver in the hope that the perpetrator will one day choose his cab. He knows the killer will ask to be driven to Fentun and will sit behind the driver’s seat, the ideal spot for strangulation. Shu is quietly impressed by Jiang, who treats him with firmness but kindness in a way that his father never has. Lives overlap here, becoming tangled and taut as suspicions grow over who could be committing the serial murders.
Fire on the Plain is a film of dualities, of pairings and mirrored experiences. There is the constant presence of the country’s north and south divide, the former’s cold weather and lack of job prospects and the latter’s heat and wealth, and where the Li family might be able to survive. The two families of the film live side by side, neighbors in the same building, yet one apartment has food on the table and enough heating to get through the winter, while the other struggles along. A stuttering relationship between Shu and Fei hints at the failings of her father and his mother’s feelings towards one another before they chose different paths in life. Structurally, too, it is a film bisected in time and narrative, with two halves tackling the same crime in different years and from different perspectives. Zhang holds these contrasts together with poise and subtlety, building them into the fabric of his filmmaking to create a detailed and grounded sense of a time and place where everything hangs in the balance. 
Fei is the film’s most compelling presence, played with a quiet assuredness by Chinese star Zhou Dongyu (Under the Hawthorn Tree, Better Days) who grasps at every emotional facet of the character with confidence and control. She is still trying to be hopeful, in spite of the growing reasons to leave the town—her eagerness to move south to Shenzhen is marked by her asking a shopkeeper for plastic sandals, to which they reply, “who sells sandals in the dead of winter?” She is lonely and frustrated, ignored by Shu, who she harbors feelings for, and her father, who refuses to listen to her longings for a better life. In the first half of the film, we see glimpses of the cynical, fatalistic woman she is destined to become in this barren landscape: alone in the kitchen, she hacks away at a skinned rabbit to be cooked for dinner, staring dead-eyed into the flames of the gas stove. 
Action builds towards a dramatic Christmas Eve climax (in China, the film is appropriately set for a 24th December release, too) where Zhang’s film expertly shifts gears. A car accident and a burst of violence splinters the film in two, rupturing the slow and composed style deployed until that moment. Fei is injured in the crash and her life is irrevocably altered, with the fracture in the narrative in many ways representing a break in her mental state, too. Her plan to meet Shu at a cornfield in Fentun that night to light a festive bonfire cannot be realized, nor can her hopes of going south. Into Fire on the Plain’s second half, the knowledge that she never escaped the confines of her upbringing haunts her and all traces of the young girl we once saw, full of potential, disappear. 
In the eight years between each half of the narrative, nothing much has changed. The sun barely shines on the ramshackle huts and shantytowns of Fentun where Fei and her father have hidden away since the Christmas incident and every road is peppered with waterlogged potholes. Coldness pervades everything in Zhang’s film, from color palette to the emotional manners of his characters. Here, the urban noir elements of the film are especially accomplished, guided perhaps by the hand of acclaimed Chinese director Diao Yinan, who has an executive producer credit, and the editing prowess of Matthieu Laclau (The Wild Goose Lake, Ash Is Purest White). Exploring the consequences of the previous years allows Zhang to enter an even darker territory. Where once his characters had their heads above water, gazing at a distant horizon, now they have slipped beneath the surface and into the murky depths of their reality.  
Shu has since become a police officer, picking up the taxi driver case where Jiang left off. His investigations lead him back to lost love Fei and their narratives become entangled once more. She wants to know if he went to the cornfield on Christmas Eve, if he waited for her to show up, if there is anything in this life she can hold onto. Zhang’s crime narrative becomes wandering and loose, letting the magnetism and toxicity of Shu and Fei’s connection to one another come into sharp focus. The film’s score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, all moody piano with swirls of distorted synth, is a true highlight and is accomplished in reflecting these tonal shifts with ease and naturalism, rising to subtly romantic, melodic strings in softer moments. There is a clear understanding in the film of the way crime shapes a community and as such, it becomes less about a grand plot to find a serial killer and more about the devastation left behind by poverty, social injustice and, for Fei in particular, the isolation of wanting something more. 
By the end of Fire on the Plain, the posing of Shu’s father’s “sink or swim” moralizing as a choice becomes all the more absurd. In this town, there is little option; Zhang’s film is a gritty and textured look at all the ways in which it is possible, and beyond one’s control, to sink. 

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Just One FilmSan SebastianSan Sebastian 2021Zhang JiFestival Coverage
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