Tag Archives: Hong Kong cinema

Rigor Mortis

Rigor Mortis

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 April 2015

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Juno Mak

Writers: Philip Yung, Jill Leung, Juno Mak

Cast: Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui, Lo Hoi-pang, Paw Hee-ching

Hong Kong 2013

101 mins

Juno Mak, who played the lead in, and wrote the story for, tragic thriller Revenge: A Love Story, makes his directorial debut with a superb, sombre homage to 1980s Chinese vampire films, in particular Ricky Lau’s supernatural action comedy Mr. Vampire. Featuring members of Lau’s original cast, Rigor Mortis foregoes the humour of the earlier film for a brooding, melancholy mood and dreamlike atmosphere. Mr. Vampire’s Chin Siu-Ho plays a forlorn former actor who attempts to commit suicide after moving into a bleak, ominous building. His neighbour Yau intervenes and saves him, but Chin and his neighbours will have to face the dark forces at work in his new home.

Rigor Mortis draws on Chinese vampire mythology, which gives the story a fascinating, mysterious (to Western audiences) edge. Taoist vampire hunter Yau and his ally/nemesis, the black magician Gau, use amulets, spells, glutinous rice and red string (creating gorgeous tentacular visuals), and, in Yau’s case, the Taoist wheel and its five elements, to control the supernatural creatures unleashed – including an impressively macabre zombie/vampire. With CGI used to terrific effect, the film features breath-taking fight sequences that alternate flowing balletic grace with sharp bursts of bloody action.

Startling, beautiful and eerie, Rigor Mortis takes place in an otherworldly realm of constantly croaking crows, muted grey colours, strange children and upside down gardens growing on ceilings, all underpinned by a haunting, creepy score. While the elliptical, circular narrative is left open to interpretation, it seems to suggest that what we are watching is the heroic death dreamed by a dying actor, the casting of Chin Siu-Ho giving added poignancy to this idea. A superb, haunting, darkly poetic debut not to be missed.

Virginie Sélavy

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

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Drug War

Drug War
Drug War

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 October 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Johnnie To

Writers: Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, Xi Yu

Cast: Honglei Sun, Louis Koo, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung

Original title: Du zhan

China, Hong Kong 2012

107 mins

Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To has attacked the crime genre from all sorts of angles. In Election the focus was Triad leaders vying for power in a Shakespearean saga, and in Sparrow it was the incidental, often comedic lives of small-time pickpockets. He’s explored good guys, of course, if you can count the barmy, supernatural methods displayed by Mad Detective’s Inspector Bun as being on the right side of the law. By comparison, Drug War will no doubt be regarded as To’s most straightforward, ‘normal’ crime thriller to date, but it is still a pretty intense affair.

Fans of the director might be saddened to learn that this isn’t as overtly experimental as his previous works, but at its core it remains a gamble. Drug War is a big-budget co-production between Hong Kong and mainland China, and making an action-packed crime movie to get past the notorious Chinese censors was never going to be easy. Already out of the frame are classic To themes like honour among thieves or any glamorisation of drugs or guns, but To’s personality still shines through in the carefully composed camerawork and the vicious shoot-outs that ramp up in the final third.

The plot is standard super-cop versus super-criminal stuff. A relentless policeman, Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun), has mid-level meth manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) land right in his lap. The penalty in China for cooking meth is death – so, with little coercion, Choi is ready to bargain for his life. Soon the pair are brokering deals to tease out the real king pins behind a gargantuan drug smuggling operation.

For the most part, Zhang is stony-faced; the only glimpse of personality comes out when he has to impersonate a chuckling drug runner named HaHa and mainline cocaine to prove his worth to someone higher up the food chain. Like the rest of the cops, Zhang is dogged and incorruptible, focused on the job at hand, only allowing himself a few hours of sleep a day. A line at the beginning is telling: after arresting someone he befriended while undercover, who then accuses him of betrayal, Zhang simply responds, ‘No, I’m a cop, I busted you.’ This is someone who does not ‘go native’ while on the job.

Choi is equally driven, but only to serve, or rather preserve, his own existence. At first he seems compliant, but as the drug network gets more and more shaky, he becomes increasingly slippery, guarding vital secrets in case he needs a bargaining chip later on. Choi’s mounting desperation is constantly prodded by Zhang’s blind ambition to snare the bigger fish, inevitably leading to a bloody, drawn-out showdown that allows To to break free of the hard-nosed realism of a police procedural, with all guns blazing.

It’s obvious that in a Chinese-produced cop film justice will prevail, but in To’s world it comes at a huge cost. This is a war of attrition on both sides. Imagine Heat but with none of the family soap operas, friendship, back-stabbing or macho posturing. It might sound boring, but Drug War’s intention is to portray stark reality over theatrics. Taking on the drug trade is a war fought through hard work and sheer luck, with no one turning the tide through a rousing speech or superior firepower. To has crafted something bleak yet compelling, and proves he can do mainstream crime tales just as well as edgier ones.

Richard Badley

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Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 28 June 2010

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Johnnie To

Writer: Ka-Fai Wai

Original title: Fuk sau

Cast: Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Gordon Lam, Lam Suet, Simon Yam

Hong Kong/France 2009

108 mins

In his recent movies, Hong Kong director Johnnie To has been pushing the crime genre in strange new directions. Mad Detective blended a police procedural with barmy surrealism, while Sparrow was much more light-hearted, a hip caper with plenty of nods to 60s French cinema. But Vengeance marks a return to what To does best - stripped down gangster stories with a hard-boiled edge and slickly executed stand-offs. With this film, he has gone back to the action of Exiled and the detachment of his crime saga Election.

The plot is simple - a woman barely survives the assassination of her family and demands that her father Costello (Hallyday), a French chef, take revenge on those responsible. Costello employs a trio of hitmen (played by To favourites Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Gordon Lam and Lam Suet) to track them down, but there are a number of twists and turns as the group make their way to Simon Yam’s unrepentant crime lord.

The main stumbling block is Costello’s own memory, which is slowly failing him. He takes pictures of people to remember their names and faces and his condition worsens to the point where he can forget where he actually is. While this all sounds a bit Memento, To keeps this theme very much in the background, playing out the shoot-outs and double crosses as you’d expect but leaving Costello’s degrading motivation as a nagging question for the audience - can he take revenge if he cannot even remember why he’s doing it?

Revenge in cinema often falls into two camps; either it is a moment of glorious catharsis or it transforms the protagonist into the sort of person who wronged him in the first place. Vengeance is less clear-cut. Here, revenge becomes a commodity, bought and sold by the various parties involved in the criminal world, so much so that Costello is almost completely removed from proceedings and his original goal ceases to matter. But To isn’t one to hammer these points home, and Costello’s condition is played subtly at first while To wallows in the seedily lit Macau location, showing that he is still very much about style and visuals.

As usual, To provides some memorable set-pieces that are both playful and fraught with tension. One is the climactic shootout that sees Costello’s hired assassins surrounded by gangsters who roll out huge bales of paper ahead of them as protection. The other is the final face-off in which Costello’s enemy is plastered with stickers so that the Frenchman can remember who he’s hunting, and once his target works that out he starts sticking the flags on other people to confuse him. It’s this simple poetry that gives To’s films a distinctive mark, this touch of the bizarre and the humorous that sets his work out from the crowd.

Vengeance might be a little Westernised for some die-hard To fans. It goes at a slower pace and the inclusion of French singer/actor Hallyday might seem like To is pandering to European audiences, but the director proves himself once again to be a master of the crime film. With each new film he manages to approach the genre from a fresh, unexpected angle and Vengeance takes revenge into dark, compelling territory.

Richard Badley

Vengeance screened at the Terracotta Festival of Far East Film in May 2010.