Full River Red Movie Review: Zhang Yimou’s Historical Whodunit is a Trip to appreciate in 2023

Zhang Yimou's Full River Red is a visually intricate whodunit thriller with superb performances and taut action.

We usually don’t see mystery films tackle such bold subgenres, until now. Full River Red brings a unique twist to the whodunit genre with a complimentary historical period.

Few filmmakers have the visual skill of director Zhang Yimou. Even his mediocre films look immaculate, such as the Matt Damon/Pedro Pascal-starring vehicle The Great Wall. Its story was poorly written, alongside pretty horrific performances, but the action scenes will take your breath away, especially if they were seen in IMAX 3D. He’s one of the greatest visual storytellers for a reason, and he can make every situation look like the most fantastic thing imaginable. It’s part of why I’m fond of any of his movies, even if propagandistic instances have plagued the late-stage stint of his career.

I’ve already elaborated on China’s problematic films, about how they’re primarily mouthpieces for the Chinese Communist Party, in my reviews for The Wandering Earth II and Hidden Blade. However, Yimou’s latest film, Full River Red, subdues its nationalistic themes for a smartly written and darkly funny whodunit set during the beginning of the Southern Song dynasty. The film opens with the murder of a member of the Jin Dynasty, which prompts the Prime Minister to launch an investigation into the murder and to find a missing letter in his possession.

Full River Red is a Big Ask, But a Thrilling One

Full River Red

Running at 159 minutes, Full River Red asks a lot of its audience. It moves swiftly, without ever taking a break for audiences to assimilate new information that arises as Zhang Da (Shen Teng) and Sun Jun (Jackson Yee) uncover the mystery surrounding the Jin’s death and the contents of the letter. There are perhaps too many twists and turns, and the ending falters significantly because of this. However, one should expect many twists because it is a whodunit. Every reveal is done in the most dramatic fashion possible, with some wry humor peppered into the proceedings. The trailer paints the film as a severe period thriller moving quickly, and it’s really not that.


Sure, there are moments of emotional devastation. That comes during the film’s latter half, with some pretty gut-wrenching torture sequences that Yimou stretches to the unbearable point to create emotional tension between the protagonists.

The drama is handled well, and each actor gets an opportunity to flex their dramatic skills, but it’s not the reason why you’ll remember the movie. Full River Red is funny. And not just “oh, it has some funny moments here and there.” It’s a full-on comedy with a rather morbid sense of humor. There are times in which you’re asking yourself, “Why am I laughing at this?” But you are because it’s naturally funny. The script is sharply written and isn’t afraid to loosen up the tension with its wry comedy, even if it occasionally involves decapitating a few villagers. 

Full River Red’s In Your Face Style is Unique

Though it fits well with the film’s in-your-face tone, with tracking shots of characters walking down narrow corridors punctuated by loud, modern songs. The cinematography is impeccable and must be seen on the biggest screen imaginable. Rarely do we see such mastery with a camera to craft striking imagery to draw its audiences inside the film’s spiderweb of mysteries. 

However, it’s not without its flaws. Some of the comedy doesn’t balance well with the film’s more dramatic sequences, and the ending is a total flub. It is hard to sustain the audience’s attention for two hours and thirty-nine minutes, but Full River Red does for most of the runtime. The ending is where Yimou saves the movie’s nationalist message, and it doesn’t land at all. What comes before its ending felt so strong, with incredible performances, taut action, and visually stunning cinematography. You may get lost along the way, but that’s also part of the fun. It’s Yimou’s best film since 2018’s Shadow, reminding audiences why he’s one of the very best visual storytellers in the game. 


Full River Red is now playing in select theatres. What did you think of the movie? What is your favorite Zhang Yimou film? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to follow us on social media!



Picture of Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent

Maxance is a freelance film and TV writer, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the University of Montreal, with a specialization in Video Game Studies.