New directors, old theme, less success
Given California’s proximity to Asia, certainly a big flashy new Hong Kong police drama is worthy of inclusion in the San Francisco film festival, especially with two new directors, Longman Leung and Sungy Luk, at the helm and some major names in the cast. But despite good scenes, mostly in the first half, this must be written off as a muddled attempt to spin a variation on the mole-in-the-force theme developed in the hugely successful Infernal Affairs (on which Scorsese’s The Departed was based) and its sequels. Readers are advised to refer to Asian film reviewer Derek Elley for an expert rundown on the plot and acting highlights of this movie. I will provide a more impressionistic treatment. Suffice it to say at the outset that there are some terrific, high drama scenes here, but as Elley puts it, the film “suffers from the perennial Hong Kong problem of a weakly developed script just when things are getting interesting” — and probably heavy editing that makes many threads get lost and some hard to follow, a flaw that was to be experienced in Infernal Affairs too. Are we not really supposed to be paying attention? The writing matters. It really does.
A lot of slickness here, with much emphasis on the high tech equipment, chiselled cool modern office interiors, chiselled-faced actors with impressive eyebrows and immaculate suits, with lots of play with focus in action scenes, cameras that like to fly down from above, sweeping symphonic background music, and an editor who knows the value of cutting from a showdown at the harbour to a beautiful babe’s soft legs silhouetted in her bedroom.
The opening is provocative enough (if only it were fully developed, instead of taking a new tack in the second half). While the police commissioner is in Copenhagen at a conference touting Hong Kong as “Asia’s safest city,” there’s apparently a diversionary operation during which a whole six-person squad of the force is kidnapped for ransom, with the cops cleverly misled into following a false trail. The deputy commissioner names himself acting commissioner and treats this as a terrorist threat to be fought by an operation dubbed “Cold War.” But his aggressive manner of behaving leads to opposition on the management side and a “cold war” between operations and management. The action is a little like a Shakespeare history play. Opposing forces, particularly Tony Lau Ka-fai as the operations acting commish and Aaron Kwok as the younger management opposition, stand around glaring and addressing fiery speeches at each other.
There is suspicion that the kidnapping couldn’t have happened without a cop or former cop involved — a mole, something rotten inside, as in Infernal Affairs. The film shows great American influence in the police department, or at least a lot of American English terminology thrown about concerning procedures. Everything is staged to make an impression of top quality facilities. Gone are the dingy police station offices of yore. This film certainly celebrates the Force. However, whether all this action is meant to support or ironize the “Asia’s safest city” claim remains moot. The second half’s investigation by the ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) draws a red herring across the scene. However this half has nice features, such as the young ICAC hotshot known as Billy Cheung (Aarif Rahman), an impressively cocky over-reacher if there every was one. This segment is both investigative and action-centred, but it all gets a little too analytical. Gone is noir, all is corporate glass and steel, with quick gun fights and noble final declarations, and a setup for a sequel.
Richard Kuipers, who reviewed this film for Variety, overwhelmed by all the introductory material at the outset, found the first half of this film hopelessly confusing, “Bombarding auds with details and depriving them of much in the way of clarity for the first half hour,’ and thought it settled down and made sense in the second part. The first half is fast-action, but it’s overall structure seems clear enough, so I’d have to side with Elley’s view that the real weakness comes later. Anyway, there’s good stuff here, but it doesn’t hang together: that much is clear.
Cold War in Cantonese, was released in Oct. and Nov. 2012 in Hong Kong and played at Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. It was also included in the April 25-May 9, 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened for this review.
Directors/Writers: Lok Man Leung, Kim-ching Luk
Stars: Aaron Kwok, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Charlie Yeung
Runtime: 102 min
Country: Hong Kong