Chekhov famously stated that you shouldn’t introduce a gun in the first act of a play without firing it off sometime later. In director Gao Peng’s feature debut, A Long Shot, the gun in question is seen during the first five minutes and then remains unused until the finale. For the rest of this murky, gritty thriller’s two-hour running time, firearms take a back seat to the rampant corruption and crime taking place in China’s northeastern industrial wasteland, where a long-standing iron and steel foundry is in the midst of a major crisis.
The Fenglin Ferroalloy Factory, a massive rust-covered facility where nearly the entire movie is set, employs more than 8,000 people and is almost a city onto itself. But wages have gone unpaid for months, and the workers — or whoever’s left of them — are getting antsy. Protecting the place against a wave of robberies is Gu Xuebing (Zu Feng), a former sharpshooter whose career went south when he lost some of his hearing, forcing him to take a day job as one of Fenglin’s ruthless security guards.
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Gu serves under Chief Tian (Shao Bing) along with a half-dozen other goons, and they form an ersatz police force in a place that seems to abide by its own rules. Suspects are routinely beaten and rarely transferred to the regular police, with the guards preferring to deal with matters on their own. They also have access to guns — a rarity in China in the 1990s, as stated in the opening credits — but use them only for emergencies.
Back home in his dingy apartment, Gu is secretly making his own handcrafted gun, hoping he can keep practicing the sport that turned him into a minor celebrity in his province. He’s very much the loner, keeping to himself at work and maintaining a distant relationship with Jin Yujia (Qin Hailu, Cliff Walkers), a single mother living across the street with her teenage son, Geng Xiaojun (Zhou Zhengjie), who is somewhat of a thug.
After a long setup, the plot of A Long Shot kicks in once Gu catches Geng trying to steal scrap metal from the factory. Instead of turning the boy in, he decides to mentor him, teaching Geng the ropes of his job and doing his best to keep him in line. But the lure of crime is everywhere, whether coming from the impoverished workers, gangsters lurking in the area, or, as we eventually learn, some of Fenglin’s very own managers.
Credited to four writers, including director Peng, the screenplay depicts a crumbling industrial world marked by years of theft and misery, with everyone doing what they can to scrape by. Thieves risk their lives to steal rotting copper wires or broken-down machine parts, revealing to what extent that part of China was in dire straits at the time, with state companies privatized and sometimes going bankrupt.
Although it’s set in the mid-’90s, A Long Shot also seems to be alluding to the country’s current economic slump, as well as to an authoritarian system where responsible working men like Gu find themselves crushed by the powers that be. That aspect of the plot winds up colliding with a heist story that surfaces in the film’s second half, leading to a denouement that involves a bloody shootout taking place at the factory’s 40th-anniversary celebration.
Peng handles those closing scenes vividly, with bursts of gunfire obscured by the constant explosion of firecrackers, and Gu’s homemade pistol finally getting put to good use. It’s a solid ending that helps compensate for the film’s somewhat opaque plotting and languid drama, despite sturdy performances from Feng and the rest of the cast.
What’s ultimately most memorable in A Long Shot isn’t the gunplay but the setting itself, which resembles a small city after it’s been hit by a major dystopian catastrophe. Captured by cinematographer Florian Zinke (Two Tigers) in 50 shades of gray and brown, the Fenglin facility looms large in the background like a warning of what China once was, and can still become, if corruption gets the upper hand and morally sound men like Gu are hard to come by.
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