Detailed thriller lacks a heart
China Moon is a fairly by-the-book dark thriller, which I have to admit is not really a genre I'm not much into. But any genre really is capable of producing good, even great, films - so as I do my thing here, I'll just be especially mindful of when I'm criticizing the genre, rather than the film.
China Moon is a tale of a cop, his partner, the woman he falls in love with, and her abusive husband. The cop and this woman start off on a bit of a surreptitious foot because of her situation and his job. That eventually leads into his covering up the death of her husband in circumstances where she would tend to appear guilty.
Of course, it's not going to be that simple. Strange facts of the case, eventually end up turning into a hardly unexpected plot twist at the end of the second act. But that's the formula, isn't it? Following the expected forms is not necessarily a killer, but I do think it puts a greater responsibility on the film to have an interesting view or something special to capture our fancy.
This film is definitely well written and well produced, even well acted by Ed Harris, Madeleine Stowe, and a young Benecio Del Toro. Yet there's something missing for me - a reason to care about these characters. I don't think it would be too hard to provide one (or more), as there's definitely foundation there to build on, but there seems to be a certain insistence on pushing the story along - an impatience, really. Now, it's not impossible to get on with the story and at the same time create a sympathy for your characters. It's either a laziness in the script or a stylistic choice that is made here. Is that an intrinsic value of thrillers - I don't see any evidence of it - which makes it just a style choice that I can count against the movie with a clear conscience.
The other problem is that there is little support for the actual resolution of the film. In other words, even though we know in advance a plot twist is coming, the content of the revelation is not hinted at in any way, nor does it bring any great understanding to what has happened previously. This again seems like a purposeful decision, probably designed for keep the twist as surprising as possible. What the filmmakers don't realize is that we don't want to be surprised so much as we want to be fooled - to have the evidence there but to have completely missed it.
Beyond that, there is a lovely attention to detail throughout the movie. We are left feeling like, just maybe, we could get away with murder now with the information we've absorbed. The movie seems to say we're better off not going against our own moral natures like that - but maybe I shouldn't make assumptions about YOUR moral nature here...
If I had to sum things up - and I suppose I will now that I've brought it up - I'd have to say the film is simply dispassionate about the characters, though the characters are not dispassionate themselves. The distancing from the audience makes such a film harder to get submersed into, but the strategy can actually work, as in Mamet's House of Games, where the feeling comes as much from character as from just being a choice of the filmmakers. For me, the rest of the film doesn't quite make up the difference, but I can see how your mileage may vary on that matter.
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