Sunday, May 06, 2018

This Week's Chinese Crime: The Trough & A or B

I was prioritizing The Trough over A or B to start with on Friday night - Hong Kong crime & action over anything else, right - but it wound up being out of my hands, as every showing of A or B was listed as "sold out" that day. Possible, I suppose, but when I saw it at noon on Sunday, I was one of two people in the theater (neither of us Asian). Leaves me just a little skeptical that it was actually sold out two days earlier; I'm guessing the theater either didn't receive the DCP drive on time or figured they'd be better off with another screen's worth of Avengers.

The movies kind of had opposite effects on me - I wasn't sure about The Trough at first, but it grew on me as what filmmaker Nick Cheung was up to became more clear, but A or B managed to lose the momentum of its strong start. I wonder if the other guy in the theater had had much experience with how particular the Chinese censor board could be about crime not paying, or if his comments as three or four mid-credit scenes played out with an oddly-placed bit of catch-up text were just about the excess of it.

If I didn't have a ton of film festival writing to catch up on, I'd probably be doing a sort of shadow double feature, because this pair seems to match up well with a couple of things I imported from Hong Kong but haven't yet gotten around to watching: John Woo's Manhunt sounds like the same sort of classic Hong Kong action as The Trough and like A or B, The Tenant Downstairs features Simon Yam and a bunch of surveillance video. Maybe I'll be close to ready this coming weekend.

Di ya cao (The Trough)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 May 2018 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

The Trough starts out looking like it's going to be a throwback to old-school Hong Kong triad films, what with its cops so far undercover they can't get out and elaborate shoot-outs and professional but ineffectual police, but not necessarily a great one. Plus, it's following that through an over-cool desaturated digital aesthetic, so it doesn't have the grit that made them sing. But here's the thing: Somewhere around the second over-the-top action sequence, it starts to get weird, and kind of delightfully so.

After a bizarre opening scene, the film drops the audience into the fictional city of Solo Park, so crime-ridden that the triads can't help but run into each other mid-crime. Undercover detective Yu Qiu (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) has infiltrated the gang of Cheng Yun (Michael Miu Kiu-wai) at the behest of Chief Inspector "Jim" Jing War-man (Hie Jong), leading the cops to a deal between Cheng and "Nine Long Fingers" (Lam Suet). Jim soon grasps that all the crime in the city is running through one mysterious Boss, and when Qiu is part of a crew sent to kidnap a non-verbal little girl (Kiera Wang Shi-ya), the begin to grasp that not only are a ton of cops on this Boss's payroll, but what's going on may have a purpose they can't imagine.

It's probably a bit unfair to say that The Trough starts out like just another triad movie - it does, after all, open with Qiu in Namibia, fighting a hyena with his bare hands (no, this doesn't go anywhere), and there is at least a little bit of self-awareness to a scene where Cheng Yun starts waxing philosophical about being a gangster who used to be a cop to a group including Qiu. That bit plays as a little heavy-handed at the time, but in retrospect seems a bit more winkingly self-referential. It probably becomes clear to the film's native audience that writer/director/star Nick Cheung is going for something heightened (I initially thought "Solo Park" was some specific district of Hong Kong I hadn't heard of before), but by the second time an action scene is a more clearly choreographed than usual, it clicks. The whole thing starts to feel like it's going for distillation rather than imitation, like a Sin City pushed a bit in the future and using HK imagery rather than American pulp for inspiration. It becomes genuinely fun at that point, like Cheung is making the movie he wants to see and is happy that someone gave him the money to go nuts.

Full review on EFC

Muhou wanjia (A or B)

* * (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2018 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

A or B starts out as a slick-looking thriller based upon a decent enough concept, but it's not long before the filmmakers run up against the limits on what you can do with a guy locked in a room, tormented by an unseen abductor. It's a classic place to start even if it probably can't be where a movie ends, so a filmmaker has to find a better place for things to lead than Perry Ren Pengyuan does here.

He opens with three men in a sauna, where a folk tale soon leads to talk of an investment firm led by Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zheng) and Tan Wanyuan (Wang Yanhui) inflating the value of a tech company that a government-owned pharma company run by LIu Wenshi (Yu Hewei) will later purchase, with the group splitting the proceeds - and then another businessman, Zeng Guangwen (Simon Yam), walking off the side of a building. Months later, as their plan is coming to fruition, Zhong's wife Wei Simeng (Wang Likun) seems fed up with his underhanded ways and says she plans to ask for a divorce. Zhong may be carrying on an affair with gold trader Zhuang Yi (Zhu Zhu), but he's still upset at the attention paid Simeng by his old friend and colleague Zhu Nan (Zhao Da). He'll have bigger problems the next day, though, when he wakes up sealed in his bedroom, with a voice over a walkie-talkie saying that he'll be given a simple "A or B" choice as the market opens for the next five days - for instance, "A) announce your divorce from Simeng or B) confess to tax evasion" - and if he refuses to choose, both will happen. And you'd better believe every enemy he's made is going to try and take advantage of these choices.

So long as Ren keeps things relatively tangible, with extramarital affairs, a rival realizing that the mastermind behind all this is getting the other guy in the room to betray him live on the phone, and Xioanian proving more resourceful than you might expect for a white-collar criminal, A or B works as a solid little thriller. Heck, it seems like he lets the audience know that Zhuang Yi invests in gold for the specific aim of giving everybody something physical to move around rather than the boring scenes of people intercepting Swiss bank account numbers. There's a ton of fun to be had watching Xiaonian trying to MacGyver his way out of the room, or noting who is in the room when the mysterious scrambled voice is talking to. It's not a bad shell game, at least to start.

Full review on EFC

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