But the movie, the highest grosser among this year’s Lunar New Year releases, is a knockabout comedy about a labyrinthine Song Dynasty (around the 13th century) conspiracy. A frequently rotated cast of guardsmen, courtiers, and informants accuse each other of killing a Jin region diplomat and stealing a message intended for Chancellor Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin), their sickly and paranoid leader. A sobering dramatic finale takes the movie in an unsettling direction, specifically towards commemorating the titular anthemic poem, which sings of “national shame,” “lost land,” and enemies lurking beyond the Helan Mountains (the Jurchen, from modern-day Inner Manchuria).
This saber-rattling finale casts a large shadow over the movie’s preceding events, but it doesn’t fundamentally change or really detract from the preceding black comedy, which tends to be broad, mordant, and bracing. It’s worth remembering that in 2009, Zhang remade “Blood Simple,” the Coen brothers’ corrosive 1984 neo-noir feature debut, as a comedic noir pastiche called “A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop.” “Full River Red” is relatively straightforward for a while but also often unpredictable and exhausting.
An on-screen text introduces Qin as a traitor since he previously executed the “highly respected” General Yue Fei. Yue’s murder isn’t the main concern of “Full River Red,” nor is the character of his assassin Qin, though his anxious influence permeates the movie.
After a visiting Jin diplomat is found stabbed to death, Qin tasks his men with rounding up a group of suspects, from whom he chooses an ignoble patsy. Corporal Zhang Da (Shen Teng) literally draws a short straw, which unfortunately brings him to Qin’s attention. Zhang Da quickly contrives an involved scheme to hide a confidential letter. Qin presents Zhang Da with a lose-lose offer: take two hours to retrieve the letter or be executed. Zhang Da will almost certainly be executed in either case, and he knows it. He implicates several others during his investigation, from Qin Hui’s advisers to a low-ranking horseman named Liu Xi (Yu Ailei)