Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Chinese Cops in It for the Long Haul: Endless Journey and The Goldfinger.

ven seeing two Chinese crime movies in as many days, I didn't exactly expect it to become a theme. You can do a little comparing and contrasting, given that one is very much Mainland and the other mostly Hong Kong - the latter is going to let the villain be fun, enough to sort of blunt how earnestly heroic the cops chasing him are - but they're more or less two separate things, just attached to similar stories, of how the police will make taking someone down their life's work, but that they are very concerned they not overstep their bounds.

Their being three or four stops apart on the Green & Orange Lines, on the other hand, is still kind of fun to my pattern-detecting brain, and I kind of chalk it up to a somewhat funny irony: There's little doubt that the newer place at Causeway Street is nicer than the Boston Common theater, and it's got enough remnants of its Arclight origins to just genuinely feel fancier. But that means they've got fewer seats, and when you can only devote X amount of showtimes to something that may sell out, it means they go to the less fancy spot, because they can fit 200 people in a room. I don't know whether AMC recognized The Goldfinger as being more of a potential hit - Tony Leung and Andy Lau are a pretty darn good cast - or if they just had screens available because some of the stuff they opened last week could be cut back, but it at least makes a little sense that one plays in one place and the other down the road.

Related to that, this is normally the place where I'd apologize for not getting a review up earlier in the run, but these will likely kick around another week because there just wasn't anything opening on the 29th and very little on the 4th. Timing can be everything!

San da dui (Endless Journey)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2023 in AMC Causeway #4 (first-run, laser DCP)

Forget that Endless Journey is based on a true story, and it's got one of the best hooks for a TV crime show I've ever heard, though "disgraced cop pursues the one(s) that got away" has been used a few times. Truth be told, a (more) fictionalized series, where the detective must do and/or confront a different thing every week, would probably dig more into what's interesting about this movie, rather than just kind of admiring his determination.

The cop in question is Captain Cheng Bing (Zhang Yi), who catches a particularly nasty case in 2002: A 14-year-old girl raped and murdered after a home invasion where the perpetrators entered via the window's air conditioning unit. He and his team, including mentor Zhang Qingliang (Yang Xinming) and rookie Xu Yizhoul (Vision Wei Chen) are expected to solve the case within five days, during which time they discover that it is likely the work of a pair of serial killer brothers. They capture one while the other (Zhang Benyu) escapes, hospitalizing Zhang, but the interrogation leaves the other brother dead, and the squad sentenced to prison. When Cheng, who received the longest sentence, is released seven years later, he turns down an apartment-building security job offer to pursue this Wang Eryong, despite the case being cold, with the rest of his team opting to put their new lives on hold to join him.

As always, I find myself wondering how certain nuances play out for the film's intended audience, because for those of us who like crime stories but aren't up on how police work is done in the People's Republic, the nuances are kind of interesting, and not just because the forensic technology is often presented as behind what you'd see in a contemporaneous American version - Zhang is shown comparing fingerprints with a loupe, for example, and a lot of the centralized services offered by the FBI are not yet implemented in China at the time of the original investigation (though Western crime dramas tend to overstate their speed and effectiveness). The bit that really makes a lot of things click into focus for outsiders comes near the end, when Cheng seems to have a hard time wrapping his head around the idea of being able to get a conviction without a confession, retroactively highlighting the bind he and his team are in at the start between a tight deadline, these anti-corruption statutes, and a system that, at least publicly, gives little weight to circumstantial evidence. An early scene that mostly played as "Cheng has a daughter the victim's age" becomes a bit more tense, knowing that.

Does that necessarily make this a great thriller? Not exactly. It's always tricky figuring out how to depict an investigation that is 95% legwork as opposed to a brilliant sleuth making connections others miss, but this one often seems to fall together rather than having the detectives really figure something out, and a couple of the bigger action pieces turn out to be detours or red herrings, albeit productive ones that speak to the characters' dedication and ability. I'm not sure to what extent not being able to read the Chinese chapter titles kept me from having a firm grip on how long the pursuit wound up being, but there's also some seeming timidity around the most interesting themes: The pressures on Cheng's friends to give up the chase are off-screen until they say they can't do it any more, and Cheng's crucial mistake which may have extended his obsession by years - assuming that a criminal like Eryong must be obvious to the eye - only gets a little bit of play. It's also one of those Chinese crime movies set at least partially in the past, the implication being that what allowed this criminal to remain at large (being able to disappear into a sprawling country of over a billion people) is less possible today.

It plays fairly smoothly, though: Zhang Yi projects the right combination of rectitude and humility, and the group around him are good complements with just enough personality to make scenes where they're batting things around interesting. The bits of action are well-done, and the filmmakers do a nice job of quietly showing the evolution of the greater world as the film goes on rather than having Cheng be culture-shocked when he leaves prison. There are amusing details like how their apartment becomes a squad room, a facet of how, despite the other lives they've built, they're still policemen underneath.

The whole thing is surprisingly decent, and occasionally downright intriguing at times. It would be a more interesting crime movie if the filmmakers spent more time probing the situation rather than passively observing it - it's not quite the sort of story that uses one's admiration for extraordinary effort to distract from why such effort is necessary, but isn't far from that - but the filmmakers do what they set out to do in entertaining-enough fashion.

Jin shouzhi (The Goldfinger)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2023 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

Before seeing this film receive this title, it never occurred to me that maybe "goldfinger" was not just a nonsense name that Ian Fleming made up, but perhaps an existing colloquialism. Or maybe it became one in the wake of the James Bond book/movie, though the meaning in North America has shifted since that time. Oddly, that aspect of the title character (let's define it as a compulsion to amass and display wealth, particularly as gold) gets relatively little play as the film goes on, like filmmaker Felix Chong Man-Keung was enjoying this guy as a monster too much to give him the sort of nuance that explains him, especially if that nuance itself is a trope on its own.

After all, what can you say about Henry Ching (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who arrives in Hong Kong in the early 1970s after noting that the British must be intending to build it up, as they've purchased nearly all the cement in Asia. Unable to find work as an engineer, he takes a job with real-estate developer K.K. Tsang (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) and helps him pull one over on a potential buyer, Wu Ren Song (Tai Bo). Elsewhere in the city, former police detective Lau Kei-Yuan (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) is joining the newly founded Independent Campaign Against Corruption agency. Eleven years later, Lau and his ICAC team are investigating the Carmen Century business empire that Ching has built, named after personal assistant Carmen Cheung (Charlene Choi Cheuk-Yin); it seems to be a house of cards built on stock manipulation and a mysterious backer, despite its gaudy golden facilities.

I mean, do we really need a whole lot of material on how Ching grew up poor and is looked down upon as an ethnic/cultural minority, therefore over-compensating and also doing his best to project being flush? Nah, we kind of know this, and who cares? Sure, Tony Cheung could give the sort of interesting, nuanced performance that makes Ching into a tragic figure, but the film is potentially a lot more entertaining, and able to speak clearly about potentially confusing issues, if his corruption is more important than the reasons for it And, good golly, is Tony Leung fun to watch in this movie, just seeing how much he can get out of giving people looks that communicate sliminess. He's maybe not disappearing into this character, but reveling in it, piling on the sort of charm and charisma that allowed the inspiration for Ching to succeed but also showing the mathematical, amoral mind which drives Ching forward and enabled him to build Carmen Century with no visible supports, culminating in Ching wondering why Lau would spend so much time and effort on this - it's not just egotism, but the return on investment has to be terrible. Leung's performance kind of makes it obvious the extent to which Andy Lau sometimes can't help but just be Andy Lau, which, granted, isn't a bad thing to be. To a certain extent, it might be deliberate, with Lau and the other ICAC staff in respectable suits and haircuts that aren't nearly so of-the-time as what they do with Leung as Ching: It's a visual message of respect and security compared to a flashy goldfinger like Ching.

Otherwise, Felix Cheung works hard to try to penetrate the sort of shield of boringness that protects financial crimes without really trying to explain them the way something like The Big Short does (possibly the Hong Kong audience is a bit savvier about this sort of financial instrument; characters in the region's films certainly seem that way). Instead, he works to pull the audience in with a bunch of details that intrigue but don't always go anywhere. Take, for example, the police rioting at the very idea of the ICAC; it feels pointed, like it's referring to something more specific than how authorities in general and cops in particular will openly attempt to preserve their opportunities for corruption, but the police are barely involved in the rest of the movie; it winds up just a way to show what Lau was up to when Ching arrived rather than not having him appear for fifteen or twenty minutes. There ar scenes of 1980s excess that see at least four dance teams credited, which are fun, especially when you stick Leung in the middle, having a clear blast.

It's telling that the narration shifts from Ching to Lau at some point, insisting on him as the protagonist despite Ching being the main attraction - from a certain point of view, Leung's work and everything around him is ultimately a way to dress up a story of dogged but generic investigator's persistence in running down a criminal. The Goldfinger works best when it's the other way around - yeah, there are guys like Lau, but it's the rioting cops and con artists with gold-plated apartments that likely resonate more.

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