The heroine, who is also a brand of villain, is one Chun Zhi (portrayed by the lovely Ning Jing), the only child of the Cai family, which has operated a fireworks empire for centuries. Because there are no male heirs, Chun has been forced to cast aside her femininity, take on the title "Master" and rule over the factory's workers as a man. She's even been forbidden to marry.
But when an itinerant artist (Wu Gang), who is also something of a rebel, is hired to paint the family icons in time for the New Year, the imperious Chun is inevitably attracted to him, and he to her.
Thus does Peng draw the battle lines between the forces of feudal tradition and the new merchant class emerging in the cities, between the identities of man and woman, between servant and master, between ideologies. A lesser filmmaker might have crushed the doomed, divided romance at the heart of the story under the weight of all these social and political imperatives, but the 38-year-old Peng has a profound gift for keeping his concerns in balance even as they remain at odds.
Meanwhile, the rushing Yellow River, which divides the "Master"'s ancestral home from the town, is the film's symbol of change, and it magically unites all the disparate elements.
Like the films of Zhang Yimou, now familiar to American art-house audiences, Firecracker is so beautifully photographed (by Yang Lun) that the moods of the cinematography are like characters themselves: a fireworks display reflected on the water, the struggle of a storm-tossed boatman to row upstream, and Chun's first tentative visit to the brash young artist's studio, where his traditional watercolors of fish are laid out like the map of his soul.
In a rich atmosphere of forbidden love, exploding firecrackers and even more explosive political changes, Western audiences get a valuable glimpse of Chinese life and culture at a pivotal moment. But this extraordinary film also holds up a distant mirror to the present, casting light even on the events of Tiananmen Square and the ferment that continues in what, to most Americans, remains the world's most mysterious country.