Yet another foreign film I knew absolutely nothing about, it turns out that screenwriter and director Tsui Hark in fact produced some of the most renowned Hong Kong action films (alas, I have seen none of them). I had seen a trailer for this one, though, on one of the other DVDs I’ve purchased, so I did at least know it was an action-oriented film. What I did not expect was the tightly bound mess of characters, plot lines and actions that came before me. It’s also one of only three Cantonese-spoken films I own.
Tyler (Nicholas Tse) is a 21 year old bartender who takes a drinking bet with a jilted lesbian, Ah Jo (Cathy Tsui), and winds up in bed with her. She is angry the next morning and practically throws herself out of his apartment, then checks a calendar and slumps in the elevator as she’s leaving–obviously she was ovulating. Nine months later, Tyler is attempting to help Ah Jo, who rejects all of his attempts, well-intentioned though they are. He eventually begins to take loans from “Uncle Ji” (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), a local loan shark who has begun asking for payment on said loans by turning those who have taken them into a bodyguard service. In the process of guarding Hong, father of Ah Hui (Candy Lo), Tyler meets “Jack” (Wu Bai), the husband of the very pregnant Ah Hui and suggests the two start a bodyguard agency of their own, Tyler intending to make money to give to Ah Jo in place of his unwanted fatherhood, and suggesting that Jack will also need money for his coming child. In the meantime, the “Angels,” led primarily by Miguel (Couto Remotigue, Jr.), are a team of South American mercenaries who have taken interest in Jack–who used to work with them–and want him back or dead, and have made their way to Hong Kong to achieve this goal. Jack wants nothing of this and makes this very clear, with Tyler attempting to survive and in some ways tag along, having been incriminated in an increasingly spiralling plot of interconnected lives and agendas.
Tse gives a great performance as the enthusiastic everyman kid who is in over his head, but who is skilled enough to still be respectable in our sympathy for his plight, while the slightly less photogenic Bai is unbelievably collected, professional and, frankly, badass, as the mercenary who has abandoned his past, but not his skills. And those skills–good grief! I thought I had seen enough stunts and wire work and so on to think little of anything to come, but the brilliance here comes from the fact that somehow it looks like these men were trained to do completely absurd things, like jumping into the air to land on someone’s shoulders, or rappel down the side of an apartment building while firing an automatic rifle. Not as if they have been trained to enact it for this stunt, but as if they have practiced and learned how to respond to any physical environment, change or threat in ways that should be unbelievable yet somehow aren’t. Married to this is a style that uses tricks that are not something we’ve never seen–such as travelling into the mechanics of a gun as the trigger is pulled, or POV shots–but that manage to feel both fresh and appropriate and smooth in their transition, with some added kicks adding something new anyway–like a woman taken for an unexpectedly rough car ride being seen from her own eyes, the camera wobbling with her unsteady steps until we pull back and turn to freeze frame on her nauseated face, just as she is about to vomit, thereby managing to convey the strength of this reaction without the viewer nausea of seeing the actual vomiting (though Hark happily does this after the drinking binge Tyler and Ah Jo take part in at the beginning).
I’ve intended to see the Hong Kong classics like Hard-Boiled for ages now, and have yet to do so, but I think this has a speedier, more kinetic approach, if my eyes are to be believed when compared to the progression of these styles into American film. Slow motion is rare, and this kind of rapid martial arts action, and especially environment-based stunts (flipping over banisters in stairways and so on, regardless of an opponent’s direct, physical involvement)–something I understand is more a product of the last decade than those early Woo films, but this is purely conjecture on my part as I’d rather be surprised by those films as well. It’s more reminiscent, though, of the intricate, elaborate scenes Jackie Chan achieved notoriety for stateside, but without any of the carefully planned and staged feel, the most important thing in this whole approach to action is that sense of believability despite the complete ridiculous insanity of them.
Bloody awesome action film, one I will have to push on the action fan(s?) I know.