Perfectly planned to the tiniest detail. (Well, almost.) ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Friday, October 2, 2009

Perfectly planned to the tiniest detail. (Well, almost.)

My rating:

Accident, directed by Soi Cheang and produced by the venerable Johnnie To's Milkyway Image studio, looks set to be the latest Hong Kong film to enjoy international success. It was featured in the recent Toronto International Film Festival and has been snapped up for distribution in the US, France, Australia and New Zealand. I wouldn't be surprised if you start hearing a lot about it in the Western entertainment media pretty soon.

I just wish I liked it as much as they did.

Brain (Louis Koo) is the leader of a team of professional hitmen, comprised of Uncle (Stanley Fung), Fatty (Lam Suet), and the Woman (Michelle Ye), who specialise in meticulously-planned murders that look like accidents. When what seems to be a freak accident kills one of the team, Brain begins to suspect that he himself was the target of an equally elaborate disguised murder attempt. And his prime suspect is an insurance agent (Richie Jen) linked to their last hit, whom Brain starts to spy on - and perhaps arrange another "accident" for.

It's been a long time since I watched a Cantonese film in cinemas, and I'd forgotten how good they can be. Although the gonzo, balls-to-the-wall style of Hong Kong films during its '80s-to-early-'90s heyday brought us some terrifically entertaining movies, it also gave them a deserved reputation for cheap, silly and exploitative filmmaking. It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say they've matured - since Wong Jing is still cranking 'em out - but there have been plenty of serious, intelligent films in the past decade-and-a-half, most of them from the Milkyway stable.

This is definitely one of them. There's an almost European arthouse feel to this film, with its long stretches without background music or dialogue and its portrait of Brain's slow descent into paranoia. The early scenes of him and his team after a routine hit, and in the midst of planning their next, do a terrific job of painting his character; this is a man so guarded and controlled that he eavesdrops on his own team. (It's telling that they're all known to each other only as nicknames.) And true to the character, Cheang's direction is equally meticulous and deliberate.

In fact, it was almost a little too deliberate. I found myself getting restless at times; this is not a typically eager-to-entertain Hong Kong movie, it's one that demands a fair bit of patience. And that patience is often rewarded with some effective suspense, especially in the murder scenes. Their ingenious setups recall the Final Destination flicks, but far less exploitative - their purpose is white-knuckle tension, not a cheap gory thrill. There's even a terrifically menacing moment when Brain confronts Uncle for botching a hit, which feels like it could turn explosively violent in a second.

And frankly, I wished it had. I walked out of the film feeling not entirely satisfied, especially once the full story was revealed. I almost wished it had been more exploitative - more suspense, more violence, more thrills. I definitely got the same vibe from the audience I saw it with; they seemed to have had a "that's it?" reaction when the credits rolled. Yet I'm not sure that that's being fair. They walked in expecting a different movie, and perhaps so did I; what we got was such a smart and self-assured film that it would be gauche not to recognise it as such. I've been thinking about it a lot long after I left the cinema, and I can't really find any fault with it.

Well, except for the most obvious one. The last murder that Brain plans is just a little too far-fetched, as is its unexpected conclusion; the whole scene is a confluence of just too many coincidences. Still, it's not impossible to forgive the movie this one conceit, especially if you've been successfully drawn into it up to this point.

Brain is a virtuoso performance by Louis Koo, who hasn't exactly distinguished himself as the next Tony Leung Chiu-wai - but this ought to get him a step closer. He does great things with just a wordless look, alternately conveying detached calm, suspicion, anxiety, and volcanic anger. I've seen better performances of this kind - Ulrich Muhe in The Lives of Others comes to mind - but Koo acquits himself just fine. It's a pleasure to see veteran Stanley Fung in action again (although he's been back for a while now, after a brief mid-'90s hiatus). Richie Jen has little chance to shine till the end, where he sells his final scene effectively.

This really was a tough movie to review. It's so expertly crafted that I can't reconcile that with my own lukewarm response to it. And I can't in good conscience give it any less than three stars. I suspect that if I were to watch it again on DVD, without the distraction of a puzzled and unappreciative audience around me, I might enjoy it a lot more. So yes, I'll recommend it, with one caveat: don't expect a typical Hong Kong film. Forget Tsui Hark or John Woo, think European arthouse. And don't watch it in a cinema in Kepong.

Update: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.

NEXT REVIEW: (500) Days of Summer
Anticipation level: yes!