Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Her father must not have been very bright. He left his firecracker factory to his daughter, Chun Zhi, and then forbade her to marry, so that the factory would stay in the family. But if she dies without children, what happens then? This is a problem that doesn't seem to have bothered Chun Zhi's father, perhaps because it would undermine the entire dramatic premise of "Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker," a visually stunning new Chinese film with a shamelessly melodramatic plot.
The movie takes place in pre-revolutionary China, circa 1911, in a provincial town where the owner of the fireworks factory is the local lord. The beautiful Chun Zhi (Ning Jing) takes over the factory at the age of 19, and everyone treats her as a man, calling her "The Master." She even dresses as a man, although that only accentuates her beauty.
The entire district is crackling with fireworks (and the sound track is peppered with background explosions). Maybe we are to understand that China's feudal way of life is about to detonate. One day a local kid steals some tobacco and is about to be severely punished when an itinerant artist comes to his defense. The artist, whose name is Nie Bao (Wu Gang), catches the eye of Chun Zhi, and soon he is painting fish on The Master's vases.
The local establishment is aghast when it becomes clear that The Master has fallen in love with the intrepid artist, and that sets an intrigue in motion, masterminded by Mr. Mann (Zhao Xiaorui). Chun Zhi tries to detach from her lover, but cannot; beneath her cold exterior, The Master is a girl with a crush, and soon she cries, in the heart-rending words of melodramas from all ages, "I don't want to be your master - I just want to be a woman!" Yes, but a lot of fireworks are going to explode before that day comes, and soon Nie Bao finds himself suspended over a bed of glowing coals with his body wrapped with fireworks; if he relaxes even a little, the first firecracker will fall into the flames, and he'll be history. Later, there is a local competition, for Chun Zhi's benefit, at which young men show off how bravely, and unwisely, they can handle fireworks. It's as if this sequence slipped in from a martial arts movie.
So many of the recent movies from China have been so good that there's a temptation to expect every one to be a masterpiece.
"Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker" is a magnificently mounted film (every frame could be a photograph), and it has a lot of energy, but the plot, as you may have guessed, is sort of silly, and the climax is all too explosive.
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