Full River Red, the review: a pastiche of genres or a mess of tones?

The Far East Film Festival 2023 closes with Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, a historical period film that would like to make fun of the genre and at the same time celebrate it, but perhaps fails to complete either of the two intentions, ending up excessively lengthening the storytelling.

Full River Red, the review: a pastiche of genres or a mess of tones?

It is quite clear right from the start that Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the film that is responsible for closing the 25th edition of the Far East Film Festival 2023, is both everything and the opposite of everything, perhaps to embrace the representation of Asian cinema in general and also its tradition (a recurring theme in this year of the event). A costume action, a historical drama, a buddy comedy, a detective story whodunit and a love story. Too many genres and tones in one you say? You may be right, as we will see in the review of Full River Red.

Once upon a time…

Full River Red 2

Full River Red: A still from the film

We are at the time of the Song dynasty in 1146. A letter mysteriously disappears and it must be found: it is a matter of utmost importance and urgency, given that a rebellion of the Jin people against the Emperor must be stopped. The Prime Minister is called to try to mediate the delicate and difficult situation. However, what we are told comes from below, from the point of view of two men of the imperial guard (a low-ranking captain and a simple soldier, related to each other) who got into trouble with their superiors and now have to find their way back. famous letter, otherwise they will face the death penalty as punishment. Hence the costumed action presented at the beginning, with an initial sequence perfectly choreographed to pay homage to that type of film, soon becomes a buddy comedy starring the two soldiers, different yet complementary, whose interpreters demonstrate great chemistry. Just as soon, as spectators we are betrayed and lied to once again: it is no longer a question of buddy comedybut yellow whodunit. Now the two must not only find out what happened to the letter, but also who killed an officer and why. There is a conspiracy against the Emperor underway and everyone is a suspect, even the two protagonists themselves. No one can be trusted – just like in a spy story modern – and the clues are increasingly contradictory.

There were twice…

Full River Red 1 Emrxsi5

Full River Red: a moment of the film

At this point begins a series of twists that will not leave the film until the end, to continue playing with the viewer and with his beliefs about what he is seeing. Maybe a trick a little exaggerated and redundant, so much so that it becomes more ridiculous than self-deprecating, despite the laudable and commendable intentions put on the narrative plate (and level). But that’s not all for Full River Red: the impossible love story that the two soldiers will find themselves living with some female characters could not be missing, mixing it with the wuxia genre in always well choreographed action scenes. Even the care of the sets, costumes, armor, fights wants to pay homage in all respects to the History with a capital S of the People’s Republic of China, and this ambitious project could only come from its best known director in the West, Zhang Yimou , the one behind the camera of cult like Forest of Flying Daggers. The same one who will reveal to us that the title of the film refers to an ancient poem handed down from generation to generation, to tell its origin and the troubled story that gave birth to it.

There were three times…

Full River Red 1

Full River Red: a sequence from the film

The identity of the film is no longer then one and threebut multiple, closer to the one, none and one hundred thousand Pirandellian, and it is precisely in this chaotic mix of categories, shapes and nuances that the film creaks and does not proceed as quickly as it would like. It is above all the dramatic and comic elements that clash with each other on more than one occasion: for example when the solemnity of a particularly tragic moment is ruined by the insane joke of the moment, or by the slapstick comedy inserted in a somewhat precarious way, short-circuiting and generating estrangement in the viewer. One could very well self-mockery on a historical and illustrious genre, both literary and cinematic, such as that of the oriental cloak and dagger without needing to become a parody of oneself, losing the laughter effect on the audience. Too bad, because the staging, starting from the direction up to the historical reconstruction, is truly impressive. But every film is a machine made up of many elements and tools and they all need to be oiled to perfection for a cohesive and convincing result. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen here.


We close the Full River Red review by also closing the films of the Far East Film Festival 2023 with a film that wants to be a great tribute to multiple genres, unfortunately ending up not really celebrating any of them and soon becoming the caricature of its own chaotic mix. The commendable work of staging is not enough when the writing behind it does not totally work.

Because we like it

  • The historical and costume reconstruction is impressive and fascinating.
  • There is great chemistry between the two protagonists.
  • Some twists are well placed.

What’s wrong

  • Drama and comedy are not well mixed.
  • He becomes (too) soon a caricature of himself.
  • It lasts too long, for no real reason, especially at the umpteenth twist.

Leave a Comment