Released in China at the tale end of 2017, my awareness of The Liquidator was about the same as Teresa May’s awareness over the current state of the NHS, i.e. nonexistent.
But this soon changed while on a train journey to work and I happened to notice a conversation between two Chinese-speaking individuals. Like a lot of bilingual people, they mixed their languages, alternating between English and Chinese.
So while most of their conversation went over my head, I soon gathered one was telling the other about a film called The Liquidator. And the gentleman was quite animated, clearly having enjoyed said flick. But it was the next line (fortunately said in English!) that made me really sit up and notice.
… Think of it like a cross between Seven and Saw!
My initial reaction?
That’s quite a statement! A cross between two of the most influential films of their era? Two films that made an indelible mark on film history? Call my interest piqued!
Based on a series of popular Chinese crime novels, The Liquidator follows police forensics expert Mi Nan (Cecilia Liu) in her investigations. Stumped by the murder of a school teacher in his own classroom, she goes to famed criminal psychologist Fang Mu (Deng Chao) for help. An utter genius at dealing with unusual crimes, Deng is, at first, rather dismissive of the case.
But once more dead bodies start turning up in unusual circumstances, Deng takes a much larger interest in the proceedings. It quickly becomes apparent that the murders are being done as a form of “social punishment” against people who have done something greatly immoral, but not necessarily illegal.
But as the investigation starts to hit them close to home, the two investigators must risk their lives to take down the unrelenting serial killer.
It’s quickly apparent why the Saw franchise came to mind for the Chinese man I overheard on the train. For example, the second scene of the film takes us into a dark dingy classroom where a teacher wakes up. Confusion quickly turns to fear as he realises he’s chained to his desk, unable to remember how he got there.
Then the killer walks in, a monologue streaming out of him like a classic super-villain; while at the same time placing the blame for a student’s suicide firmly on the teacher’s shoulders.
And then the finishing touch: Before his death, the student had been asked to complete a specific Maths textbook. The killer now presents the very same book to the quivering teacher, informing him that the only way to live is to finish the book before he bleeds to dead.
This scene, and many others after it, scream Jigsaw’s M.O. from the Saw franchise. But it’s not a mere carbon copy, as this killer chooses to focus on people who take advantage of or punish innocents. So while it’s not particularly unique, it is different enough to be engaging.
It also helps that Cecilia and Deng make a likable duo. Indeed, their association is heavily reminiscent of the Clarice Starling/Hannibal Lector relationship from Silence of the Lambs. A bond, not through romance, but through minds and an exchange of ideas; as the younger inexperienced one seeks guidance from the older to catch a killer. (But there’s a lot less eating people!)
And, like Silence of the Lambs, if this relationship had been focused on or allowed to flourish, The Liquidator could have made for a powerful movie. Alas, as the connection between Fang and the killer becomes far more personal, his relationship with Mi recedes to the background. Hell, for the second half of the movie Mi more or less becomes a background character. It seems like even China can’t escape the same gender issues that plague Hollywood movies. (Though, to be fair, apparently Fang is the lead character in the books)
But towards the end it becomes easy to ignore the gender problems because, I guarantee, your entire attention will be focused on how idiotically complicated this story-line ends up becoming. The last half hour alone becomes almost impenetrable as logic gets beaten to a pulp, thrown out a window and then set on fire. No joke, but I’m still not 100% sure if there was more than one killer! Admittedly though, this might be a language issue more than anything else.
Fortunately the same can’t be said for the film’s production values. Writer/Director Xu Jizhou has (in the words of John Hammond) clearly “spared no expense” in bringing the numerous urban locations to life. Additionally, many of the action scenes have a decently slick aesthetic to them, indicating that, though this may be his debut film, Xu could give plenty more if not saddled with such a weak script.
While The Liquidator isn’t a bad film, it is an uneven one. On the one hand it’s a great idea, with a stirring current-day commentary on the wrath of social media and how we judge people immediately with no evidence.
And yet the execution seems out of date. A call back to the pulpy horror/crime dramas of the late 90s, and filled with CGI of the same period.
In other words, not quite up there with Seven or Saw.