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Acclaimed Chinese director and fast rising young talent Zheng Kuo follows up his challenging art and democracy documentary “The Cold Winter” with “Burned Wings”, a searing and highly enjoyable look at the low-down life of young gangsters in a small city in north-eastern China. Following Ming (Yang Shicong) and his three comrades in arms as they try to make names for themselves and work their way up the pecking order, Zheng combines bloody, hard-edged violence and marvellously deadpan humour as he depicts his wild protagonists coming up against other thugs and corrupt police. As is often the case, the real threat increasingly comes from Ming’s relationship with his friends, as loyalty and conscience clash with the extreme ruthlessness needed to make it to the top.
“Burned Wings” is a unique and charged piece of indie cinema, and is likely to shock and surprise viewers who only associate this kind of genre film making with Hong Kong and the Triads rather than the Mainland. Zheng Kuo has done an amazing job here of pulling together the usual figures and stereotypes of the form (the noble thug, the manipulative villainous cop and others) and amplifying them, painting a scorching picture of a lawless, out of control society driven by recklessness and ruled over by those willing to push things over the edge. There’s social commentary here, as well as politics and philosophy for those who look for them, though the film is first and foremost a fierce and hugely enjoyable tale of brotherhood and the inevitable madness and extreme excess that come with ambition in a dog eat dog world.
This aside, arguably the film’s main strength is the way that Zheng balances the often brutal violence with comedy – while the themes and subject matter are no laughing matter, there’s a delightful irony to the proceedings that keeps the viewer off-guard throughout. Things certainly do get violent – surprisingly so for a Mainland production – and there’s blood, beatings, and a great deal of sex and nudity along the way, both male and female, giving the proceedings a welcome hard edge. At times knowingly over the top, the film is filled with offbeat, almost anecdotal touches, Zheng showing a great eye for idiosyncratic details, giving the film a laid back, grounded charm despite its moments of carnage. While the basic plot and characters are familiar this gives the film a fresh and original feel, and it does stand out from others of its type.
Shot in a raw, matter of fact style (the film was originally intended as a documentary, and is based on real life events and characters), while there’s no denying that “Burned Wings” is occasionally rough at the edges, perhaps unsurprising with it being Zheng’s first foray into fiction. However, if anything, this only serves to underline the film’s energy and devil may care spirit, and it’s to Zheng Kuo’s considerable credit that he’s managed to produce something that’s not only challenging and provocative, but massively entertaining and impressive on a more basic cinematic level – this is exactly the kind of genre filmmaking that China needs to see more of.
(“Burned Wings” screens in London on Saturday 10th May as part of the 2014 Chinese Visual Festival.)
Zheng Kuo (director) / Theng Kuo (screenplay)
CAST: Yang Shicong