While Chinese action directors (John Woo of "Broken Arrow," Stanley Tong of Jackie Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx") rule the American box office, viewers seeking beauty and substance can sample more traditional Chinese cinema at the Flint Institute of Arts this weekend with "Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker."
This tale of star-crossed lovers in turn-of-the-century China stars Ning Jing as Chun Zhi, the heiress to the vast Cai fireworks empire. As an only child, she has been forced to renounce her femininity and maintain a facade of masculine authority. She is also forbidden to marry, so that the business cannot go to an outsider.
Chun Zhi is contented with this until Niu Bao (Wu Gang), a handsome, young artist who is stranded in their company town, is hired to paint the New Year's "door gods" for the factory. She is immediately attracted by this defiant and talented young man who considers her his employer, not the title everyone else uses, "Master."
Mr. Mann (Zhao Xiaorui), the company manager who has been placed in charge of the future of both Chun Zhi and the company, is suspicious of the two. He is also bewildered about just what he can do about it. Chun Zhi is, after all, his master, too.
When Chun Zhi begins to openly see Nui Bao, it throws not only the authorities into a tizzy, but the villagers as well. Everyone is afraid of what this tweaking of convention will mean to their livelihoods.
"Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker," beautifully acted, and marvelously directed, is completely absorbing from start to finish. Wu Gang is terrific as the young man who is not only willing to defy convention, but to throw it in everyone's face.
Zhao Xiaorui is superb as the manager who must walk a tightrope between his respective duties, and his own emotions. Ning Jing is also effective and generates plenty of chemistry with Wu Gang.
Special note should be taken of the witty translation on easy-to-read yellow subtitles. It manages to be idiomatic enough to convey the mood to American viewers without being anachronistic.
For a film from mainland China, this movie takes a surprisingly positive view of private industry and its importance to the town. Here it is the capitalist business owner who gets exploited by everyone else! There is no heavyhandedness or propaganda, and common people are shown as participants in the enforcement of tradition.
Director He Ping lets the emotional fireworks build to a suspenseful conclusion, and along the way creates many vivid images. Every frame of this movie is imaginatively and lovingly shot.
The director makes great use both of the ancient Chinese town and of the Yellow River. The latter does double duty, as both the literal and metaphorical gulf that the two lovers must constantly cross.