Plenty of Korean movies I’ve seen just so happen to deal with revenge, and after a while they start blending together. In the same way Hong Kong heroic bloodshed action movies typically tackle brotherhood. Korean revenge movies try to delve into the psychology into those who feel wronged, and deserve to take justice into their own hands. Other Korean revenge movies will indulge the viewers in the fantasy of it. Either method works for me. Broken tries to be a more thoughtful take while providing the thrills, but ends up doing neither successfully.
Initially the movie makes a good impression bypassing the predictable to quickly setup the story of single father Lee Sang-hyeon (Jung Jae-young) wanting to take revenge on the teenagers that raped, and killed his daughter. Broken ends up going downhill after that setup is done. Forgetting to show the gradual change in Lee before he snaps into killing. It just happens without proper build up removing another piece of characterization. As the film progresses, Lee remains a husk of a character with only the fact he’s a father to have you sympathize for him. This is fine until the movie attempts to tackle subject matters without giving them the proper time to be explored. Slowing the film down when touching on delinquency, and the flawed justice system preventing building tension. As a commentary on these things it acknowledges these are a thing in society, it’s unfair, and that’s as far as it goes.
As a drama it fails to be captivating in the way it wants to be. Lee I already mentioned is a husk of a character. So when it tries to delve into the morality of his actions it falls flat. There’s hardly any scenes showing Lee spend time with his daughter to make it feel justify. A trait that is brought up, but isn’t use to explore any kind of regret in Lee. It’s simply makes him sad leaving there, and moving on.
When the film isn’t focus on Lee the attention is given to Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung Min) who is tasked to find both Lee daughter killers, and Lee himself. His contribution to the story is very minimal using him, and his partner to talk on the injustice of South Korea justice system. Simply stating that the kids will get a slap on the wrist isn’t good enough to count as meaningful commentary on this subject. Significantly less so when it tries to humanize the murderers, and rapists of the movie. By doing so, the greyish morality presented further shines a negative light on the lack of depth, and detracts from the few thrills it has to offer.
Padding becomes more common in the second half. Dragging out out the running time by showing the actors walk through snow for minutes. Sometime it serves a point, and other times it’s just plodding along. The second half feels unorganized compare to the first half. There’s no structure in how information is presented, it’s a lot less eventful, and the pacing becomes slower then usual. What’s not preferable to that is the climax where characters do dumb things out of character. Coming off as contrived instead of organic to the story.
The ending wanted to be heartbreaking during its climax. Falling flat for two significant reasons; first one being Lee easily goes from your average, overworked father to a man on a mission for vengeance. So determine to the point Lee survives a hellish snowstorm despite being immensely exhausted from his journey, and with a broken leg. Second reason being the shotgun Lee carries for just over half of its runtime. Typically the rule of writing is if you have something like a shotgun, or anything established in the story it should be used later on. In the climax, the shotgun is used, but not the way you would expect it. If there was more to Lee’s character the outcome of the climax would be justifiable, but instead comes of as tacky. When I don’t care about the shallow main character of the movie why the movie thinks I would care about it’s equally shallow supporting cast is baffling.
Acting in general is fine without much standing out. Jung Jae-young I feel suffered the most from the screenplay. Almost all of his most potent bits of acting is at the beginning of the film. He goes through a wide arrange of emotion in the first half hour from being remorseful, to angry, and to confusion. It gives him great freedom to portray things about Lee that the screenplay doesn’t provide. Afterwards he becomes stiff being stuck to having his mouth open, and shaking in the cold for a performance. Jung Jae-young just can’t do much with this character coming off as wooden in portraying his tortured soul. Everything else from cinematography to music is fine, but doesn’t do much in service of the movie.
Writer/Director Jeong-ho Lee I would put the blame on for virtually all the film’s problems. Half an hour could have been cut from the movie which instead of using it to develop characters, or further explore it themes just has it actors walk around in the snow. Resulting in a movie that feel padded when it shouldn’t be. A few more touch up to the story would have helped Broken stand out among the mountains of Korean revenge movies. Instead, it’ll just blend in with the crowd without anything to distinguish it in the back of my mind.
During the mid 90s there was a series of Hong Kong movies by the name of Young, and Dangerous that were released. This series of movies focused on a group of young triad members, detailing their adventures, dangers, and growth in Hong Kong triad society. Aside from the fact it has some Hong Kong actors I like (they even got Simon Yam) I can’t really say anything else on the series since I haven’t seen them. However, it’s during this craze of goo wak jai (asian gangsters/triad members) that inspired many imitators to duplicate it success. Streets of Fury (1996) happens to be one those movie starring one of my favorite Hong Kong actor Louis Koo. In the same vein of Simon Yam, Louis Koo is also an actor who regardless of what he’s in I’ll watch it because I like him that much. Even in his first major film role, Koo striking on screen presence shines through in this horribly misguided movie.
Streets of Fury starts out by introducing the viewer to down-and-out teens Hu (Michael Tse Tin-wah) and Yu-long (Louis Koo Tin-lok) who are repeatedly victimized by local gang leader Short-Sighted (Simon Lui Yu-yueng) and his buddies. From here the movie gives out simple characteristics to our protagonists. Hu loses his temper easily, and gets into fights frequently whereas Yu-Long is more laid back, and caring. Through these defining features the movie does little to expand on them. One of the movie major issues is Hu, and the film attempt at trying to make him sympathetic. It’s impossible to feel any remorse towards Hu when he mistreats his girlfriend, is shown easily sleeping with women despite being in a relationship, and gives his girlfriend money, and tells her to get an abortion as soon as he hears she is pregnant. Not only that, but it’s implied during a timeskip he never went back, and reconcile with his ex-girlfriend after participating in a violent gang fight.
Hu is the antithesis of Yu-long in every way, yet doesn’t commit to making this character entirely unlikable. There’s a point in the story where Hu feels some semblance of remorse for everything he put his ex-girlfriend before the movie ditches that idea to follow Yu-long who’s a more rounded character. When the movie doesn’t need a conflict to push things forward Hu gets written out of the movie. He doesn’t have much of a personality contributing to his static nature, and after a while you’ll easily forget he was originally the main character.
Another major issue is the film’s pacing. Either escalating events to quickly, or meanders around in its attempts to flesh out Yu-long relationship with Shan (Teresa Mak). When it rush it resorts to easy tricks to make you dislike the film’s villain Short-Sighted. He doesn’t just rape Hu’s girlfriend, along with his entire gang, but does it again to Yu-long girlfriend later on in the movie even after Hu chopped up one of his hands! In general, characters don’t learn anything, and if there is a change in them it occurs off screen.
On the meandering side you have Shan, an old schoolmate of Yu-long who immediately falls in love with him. Leading to a relationship where Shan gets decently developed while Yu-long receives a minor character arc. Unfortunately, the writing decides to basically rehash the first act, and this time have film villain Short-Sighted rape Yu-long girlfriend resulting in the same events playing out like act one. You have another gang fight between our leads, and Short-Sighted with the only difference being how the confrontation ends the second time. I honestly can’t recall another movie I’ve ever seen rehashing events of the first act of its story for its conclusion.
The writing is on the nose at times being unintentionally funny; like a brief exchange between Hu, and Yu-long where Hu talks about Hu dead parents. These two grew up under the same household so Hu basically saying “Yu-long, we’re brothers, even if not blood related, or from the same parents” comes off unnatural during their exchange. What the movie is trying go for is uncertain since in a coming of age movie growth is necessary, and our lead characters have little time to reflect on their life. Only two minor characters in the movie actually reflect about the hand life dealt with them, but they’re hardly in the movie. Any thematic exploration there could have been is lost in its jumbled mess of a story. Being incapable of crafting a balance between a coming of age story, and triad crime drama.
By far the most likable actor in Streets of Fury is Louis Koo. His on screen presence is simply natural. He doesn’t try make himself look tough like his co star Michael Tse attempts to do. Making Koo more believable in his portrayal. Another thing Koo does is not dialing up the less favorable aspects of his character. Understanding that his character while misguided should still be sympathetic. Completely the opposite of Michael Tse who goes overboard in making his character unlikable. Whenever Michael Tse has to portray a more gentler side of his character it’s tough pill to swallow because of how unlikable he is in general. Dragging the movie down when he’s the focus.
Tsui Kam-Kong who plays the dreadlock triad leader King. He simply hams up his role being the most laid back triad member in the entire movie. Through his silly mannerism he carefully makes a comedic character who’s also capable of acting tough. Pulling off the difficult task of making a comedy relief convincingly look tough. Ben Lam Kwok Bun who plays brother beast also balances the delicate side with the tough side as Brother Beast. It’s a shame he wasn’t in the movie more since he’s pretty good. Of course there’s also Alan Chui Chung-San as another mobster whose only memorable because he typically carries a miniature fan around with him because it’s always too hot.
Simon Lui pulls in an unlikable performance just like Michael Tse, but this time in the film favors. His character is written to be pathetic, and despicable in every sense of the words. Buying him as a teenager is a bit tough with a receding hairline, and five o’clock shadow, but other than that he’s fine. There’s also the two ladies Gigi Lai, and Teresa Mak whom only act as romantic interest. Teresa Mak gets a bit more to do since she has more screen time. Also, I have to address Jerry Lamb being on the cover of the DVD I own since his only purpose is getting killed. His contribution is minuscule, and considering there’s three other actors who have more screen time than him that’s just baffling he’s on the cover.
Directed by Hin Sing ‘Billy’ Tang he does an incompetent job on filming the fight scenes. Going for a documentary look to it the fight sequences are clearly shot on a hand held camera. This is an issue since the camera shakes a lot making 90% of the fights unwatchable. Considering the movie are simple, large brawls it’s baffling how Billy Tang couldn’t maintain a clear image. The 10% where it is visible the choreography is unimpressive, and needed to be rehearse more to appear more natural than it did. Other than the lackluster music, and okay editing there’s pretty much nothing left to cover. Okay, there’s a magazine Michael Tse reads that had an image of Young, and Dangerous 3 on the cover for all intent, and purposes is a unsubtle hint at what it ripping off poorly.
Streets of Fury is a movie not made for artistic expressions, but to simply latch of the success of a popular movie, and make a quick buck out of it. Movies like Streets of Fury get made in droves not only in Hong Kong, but every film industry you can think of has at least one of these movies. They usually get forgotten about fairly quickly, and even when an actor becomes a superstar in their country film industry like Louis Koo eventually did. Very few of their fans even bother digging up movies like these as they continue to collect dust.
The Merciless tells the crime genre age old tale of young, and spirited undercover cop, in this case being Hyun-soo (Im Siwan) infiltrating a criminal organization to take down Jae-Ho (Sol Kyung-Gu), and his boss empire. It sounds by the number, but when it comes to execution it delivers a pleasant surprise, and only for the first half. I can’t name you another movie in general that opened up with two criminals talking about eating raw fish, and killing people. This unusual opening show traits of the film capabilities to make something fresh out of a generic concept. For half of the movie, it does that perfectly fine. It does the usual plot points of showing the undercover cop infiltrating the prison, the preparation before the operation, and information regarding the criminals the officers are attempting to capture. Moving along in the prison where it also contain scenes you would expect; the undercover cop gaining the powerful criminal trust, rescuing powerful criminal from death, capturing the top criminal attention in a prison brawl, and eventually bonding. Familiarity easily could have been this film biggest enemy, but it turns it around, add its own spin on things, and feels fresh.
For about an hour, it does a superb job sprinkling plot points that could eventually become rewarding the more the film progresses. Showing early on shades of grey on both the officers Hyun-soo works for, and the criminal he’s infiltrating. All the while balancing Hyun-soo ever growing bond with the target, what it does to him mentally, and showing how his loyalty wavered. Another nice approach to the matter is taking a setup that is usually played dead serious, and adding much needed levity to make it stand apart. Giving the prison portion of the movie more charm than one would expect. Providing a host of laughs without tonal whiplash when it goes back to being serious. The fun nature become part of the characters we follow, and makes them likable. While in prison, the story doesn’t forget to thicken the story by providing Jae-Ho his own conflicts. Ensuring even if Hyun-soo isn’t on screen something significant does feel like is happening. It’s unfortunate that once both characters make their eventual exit from prison it’s all a series of bad choices.
A slight twist to liven up a generic set up is the film antagonist knows our protagonist is an undercover cop for half of the movie. This makes the dynamic far more interesting by avoiding the usual pitfall of “the lier reveal” climax movies of this nature tend to heavily rely on. It’s a shame the film decides to do very little with this twist. Hyun-soo plays both sides conflicted about where he belongs, and goes in the direction you expect it too. The police officers begin to doubt his loyalty, and so do some of the criminals. It never becomes a greater of two evil since the decides to remove the shades of grey it set up early on. A singular plot point derails the shades of grey undoing its own fresh take on a generic story.
Another aspect where the film falls apart is the police chief. This character is just here just because the film needs a stubborn chief to keep the undercover cop in check. There’s nothing done with her whereas Jae-Ho is meant to be a surrogate father to our protagonist. With this major flaw it’s impossible for the film to make a good case for why Hyun-soo loyalty should be solely with the law when the film frequently shows Hyun-soo getting berating, and the police chief mistreating him constantly for a job he didn’t want. Jae-Ho on the other hand also suffers from the lone fact him, and Hyun-soo relationship isn’t shown enough on a personal level. When it comes to them doing their criminal deeds there’s no expense of those scenes to find, but showing them interact in non job related activities is virtually absent. Doing a disservice to the viewer for detailing the growth of Hyun-soo, and Jae-Ho relationship.
What The Merciless was trying to go for is also questionable. The first half of the movie attempts to be a crowd pleaser while the second half takes a more arthouse approach both of which aren’t balanced. Instead of weaving a story that handle both style of cinema it went the easy route, and simply separating two vastly different style instead of combining them together. The second half attempts to make the viewer think on the story, and what it’s protagonist has to live with. Problem is, what the viewer is meant to take away from the story largely is unknown. It has a bleak ending, and that doesn’t means much when characters lose their appeal overtime the longer it goes on. Once outside of prison, the movie fails to further develop it leads in engaging ways. Reiterating traits about them already established. If it was trying to be a tragedy than it didn’t provides the characters needed to be worth caring about. Failing as a crowd pleaser since it goes from a fun, and occasionally grim undercover cop movie to a contemplated piece about human nature, and loyalty. It’s a messy movie with clear potential, and it dropped the ball.
On the acting, and technical side of things it’s well rounded. When it comes to style director Sung-hyun Byun gives the film a sleek, and cinematic look to it. Always finding creative ways to shoot on paper would be mundane scenes. For example, when Sol Kyung-Gu is getting beaten by police officers outside of an office. Byun shows the sequence play out from the inside of the office out the window, and follows it to be more visually interesting. The film biggest set piece in the middle portion of the movie has a huge between two gangs. He doesn’t simply keep the camera in place with a wide view to make everything visible. A few time during this sequence he’ll have a take go on longer than expected to show the chaotic fighting, have the camera follow actor Siwan as he gets tossed across the room, and in a instance he rotates the camera full circle during the brawl. A rotation shot that could been seen as self indulgent, and distracting, but works thanks to his excellent eye for detail.
Im Si-wan falls into the category of what some viewers familiar with Asian movies would call a pretty boy. Typically this is an in-circle phrase for Asian cinema insistence to cast “pretty boys”, typically pop stars, in leading roles they shouldn’t be in from gangsters, to criminals, serial killers, and so forth that would make it difficult to accept them as the character. Asian cinema isn’t the only film industry guilty of this so I typically pay it no attention. Especially here since the physical appearance of Im Si-wan works in his favor. It’s easy to buy from him that he gets drawn to the allure of the criminal world. He plays his role exceptionally well, especially during his dramatic turns as some of his work in this movie. Combining a certain level of vulnerability, or arrogance within his performance.
Sol Kyung-Gu is another standout. His role is more complicated to decipher. He’s able to demonstrate a more caring side within his portrayal despite him playing a character aiming to be number one through any means. Expressing his character enjoyment in his dangerous business weather it be beating up criminals, or climbing up the ranks. Displaying a ruthless within him, even when coming off as playful. Yet, he never loses his darker side whenever on screen with Im Si-wan. When together, they both bounce of each other naturally. The only other actor with a noteworthy performance is Kim Hee-Won. A more playful performance to counteract Sol Kyung-Gu subtle performance. Kim Hee-Won gets most of the film jokes, and delivers them perfectly thanks to his comedic timing. Despite being the most lighthearted among the cast, he too is able to dramatic pick up the slack when it comes time to it. Other actors do just as well in their more straight laced role. Jeon Hye-Jin who plays the police chief, and Lee Kyoung-Young who plays the criminal boss play them straight. Despite that, both are given enough time to leave an impression.
The Merciless was a tough watch for the sole reason it’s the kind of movie that could have been more, but didn’t know how to. It’s unfortunate because you have half of a good movie, and the other half that derails it with a misguided direction in writing. It wants to be a movie that appeals to the general crowd, and cinephiles alike, but just end disappointing both. Lavish production values, good performances, and very little, but decently action sequences barely helps it raise above the mediocrity of similar movies. However, when the writing unwillingness to commit to taking risks, and gamble big prevented The Merciless from possibly being another classic piece of crime cinema.
Jin Zhang, or Max Zhang as he’s sometime is credited shares career similarities with director Jonathan Li. Both of these men before The Brink have worked their way up in the Hong Kong film industry. Jonathan Li starting out behind the camera as a third assistant director on Infernal Affairs 3 (2003), and Max Zhang starting out as a stunt double in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Over a decade later of work both managed to garner some level of recognition. Max Zhang is easily more prolific with supporting roles in The Grandmaster (2013), Ip Man 3 (2015), and SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (2015). Garnering Max Zhang a well earned fanbase for not just his incredible athleticism in his fight sequences, but his on screen presence displaying good acting abilities. Surprisingly, The Brink doesn’t just mark Max Zhang first time headlining a major movie as the lead star, and also marks the first time Jonathan Li take the helm as a director after over a decade working mostly as a assistant director. Both have something to prove in this film that is steps away from greatness, but accomplish the feat of proving they can handle bigger roles.
On the story front The Brink is above average. Telling the classic story of a reckless Hong Kong officer, in this case being Sai Gau (Max Zhang), attempting to put an end on a criminal gold smuggling scheme. Anyone with experience in Hong Kong cinema will know what to expect from the story, minus the goods this time not being drugs. Some of the characters are also what you would expect them to be; best friend Zhi-Di (Wu Yue) so close to retiring getting pulled back into action, the chief coming down Sai Gau neck for operations gone wrong, a low ranked criminal villain in Jiang (Shawn Yue) with big ambitions, the daughter of a criminal reminding Sai Gau of his sense of duty, Jiang boss who plans to give his business to his son seeks to get rid of him, and that basically covers it. There are other minor characters, but they don’t contribute much in the grand scheme of things. It’s lacking in creativity, but when it comes execution writer Li Chun Fai knows how to play around with these familiar characters, and plot point in a successful way.
For starter, the pacing of the film is just right never lingering too much on unnecessary details, and evolving the main storyline in a organic way. Being able to escalate stakes within a reasonable scope. It has a certain number of main characters, and knows their influence with those around them. Hardly going overboard in favors of anyone to show more, or less an even playing field. Another positive in the writing is the whole cat, and mouse writing it takes for it central conflict. Both Sai Gau, and Jiang come face to face several times throughout the movie. With Jiang just barely being able to get the advantage over Sai Gau in his attempts to arrest him. Further adding to the intrigue is Jiang seeking vengeance on those who betrayed him making proceeding events for him more difficult to come out on top. Seeing the many ways Jiang gets out of his situations is quite fun to witness.
Other area of the writing comes with mixed results. Characters are simplistic, and clear cut in their motivations. In its effort to be more than a good cop capturing evil doer it leaves many aspects half baked. The most prominent one being a insignificant plot point on Zhi-Di owing an off screen gang money. This clumsily justifies Zhi-Di motives in the later half of the movie, but with it being the only mention it just goes nowhere. While the writing attempts to make things different shades of grey it ultimately just boils down to good guy versus bad guy. Characters are defined, but they switch motivation, or personality at a moment notice to serve the writers needs since Li Chun Fai couldn’t figure out how its character would get from point a to point b with how they were established. If Li Chun Fai didn’t rewrite established characters consistently he would have been able to create more complex characters in favor of the film.
Where the writing falter plenty is with the character of Ke-Yan (Cecilia So) whose name I don’t believe is actually ever said in the movie itself. The only way I was able to find out her name was looking for it in the closing credits. If that alone doesn’t get across how this character is just put into the movie for no narrative reason than maybe the fact she contributes nothing in the overarching story will. Her scenes amount to nothing, but just providing a little characterization for Sai Gau, and even less for Ke-Yan. Her subplot of being a daughter tied to a criminal Sai Gau accidentally killed isn’t explored. It’s brushed aside quickly, and feels like Ke-Yan is only here to provide a pro-life message that is shoehorned in. If Ke-Yan was going to be in the last shot of the movie than you know, doing something significant storywise with her would have made it more impactful. Lastly, why does Sai Gau go into prison for a couple a months with dark hair, but then when released has blonde hair. Not that it’s of any importance, but it’s a noticeable change that comes out of nowhere.
Max Zhang for the first time in his career carries the mantle of a leading man, and he does quite well for himself. He doesn’t attempt to oversell his character through his acting, but rather tries to keep his portrayal restraint when not fighting. Providing more subtle delivery in some of his sentimental scenes preventing them from being sappy. There are glimmer of range within him that the film sadly doesn’t utilize more frequently. Of course, when it comes to Max Zhang in the fight sequences he’s still just as impressive, and quick as he ever been.
Opposite of Max Zhang is Shawn Yue playing the cold hearted villain. Nailing the portrayal of his character personality, but unable to overcome the occasional stoic delivery of dialogue. Sounding disinterested half the time, and the other half sounding detached like he should. Yue acting won’t impress, but one where he’s meant to mourn over a lost is handle well by Yue without him breaking character. Wu Yue whenever on screen typically takes the spotlight from Zhang. Giving life to a archetype character being capable to generate sympathy for his character in spite of the above average writing. When it comes to his fight sequences he’s just as impressive as Max Zhang. There’s some noteworthy name in the supporting cast like Janice Man, Derek Tsang, Gordon Lam, and Tai Po, but the supporting cast tends to be one note. Eventually being indistinguishable from one another performances.
First time director Jonathan Li with the helps of cinematographer Kenny Tse captures a aquatic, moody feel to the film. Showing a more grimy side of Hong Kong through his usage of location. If it’s related to the ocean he’ll use from a crowded indoor fish market, to a fishing trawler in the middle of a storm, gloomy ports, and even going underwater to film a action sequence which in spite of being performed slowly is still entertaining to witness. His directing of action sequences stands out more than his narrative storytelling. Mostly because when it comes to action he allows for long takes, and if needed will get inventive with his shots to make his fight scenes pop out. Being able to avoid the pitfall of showing background actors doing nothing in his fight sequences. With tight editing, and great composition his eye for action sequences raises the film quality whenever onscreen. Heck, he’s able to make an action sequence underwater feel eventful. There might be only a handful of them spread throughout, but they are worth waiting for. His music choices are mixed. Some of it works like during the action sequences to add excitement, but sometime it comes off overblown like towards the end of the movie using choir like music.
Action choreography is handle by Chung Chi Li, and much like his action choreography in Extraordinary Mission (2017), Li goes for a more grounded approach. Having very limited usage of wires, most of which are sprinkle in the climax. Chi Li emphasizes Max Zhang speed in the only one versus many brawl that has Max Zhang fighting in a alley. Alongside Wu Yue who also participate in the one versus many brawl on his own, Max Zhang is able to make it look convincing he’s able to beat up a dozen men rapid swings of his flashlights. However, my personal favorite fight in a parking lot with Max Zhang going one on one with a masked assailant. Creatively using the parked cars environment to have its actors use to avoid hits from the other fighter. Both men are able to keep up with each other performing their moves quickly resulting in some impressive long takes in the fight. Lastly, the climax which involve Max Zhang fighting against Wu Yue, and Shawn Yue on a fishing ship during a storm is the centerpiece action sequence. It’s an exciting climatic fight with plenty happening in the background as it shakes throwing all participants off. The choreography here in particular takes into account the rocking ship putting the advantage of the fight to whoever it wants. It’s quite a sight to witness, and what’s also vastly enjoyable to witness is how epicly presented the final punch between Max Zhang, and Wu Yue is filmed.
The Brink doesn’t break any grounds in any area of filmmaking, but is overall a success thanks to it crew overcoming several weaknesses. In particular, the wonderfully done action sequences elevating above everything else to be the one area it shines the best. Jonathan Li proves he can handle his own in the forefront as a director thanks largely to his strong direction which is felt throughout the movie. Of course, Max Zhang himself continues to prove why his raise to fame isn’t a fluke. Being just capable in his acting as he is in his fight scenes will eventually garner him more leading roles in his career. Regardless of your familiarity with anyone in the film, or Hong Kong action cinema The Brink is a good way to spend your time.
You normally wouldn’t be able to tell from the movies I regularly write about, but I’m actually a big fan of slow pace, character driven movies. Movies on the level of Blade Runner (1982), and its sequel Blade Runner: 2049 (2017) are movies that I am more than happy to just eat up. A strong character will always stay with me, even if I forget certain details about the story being told. In the case of the Blade Runner franchise, it’s biggest draw to me is that it never forgets the people, and their struggle in its story set among the bigger scope of events in them. The character driven films that stick in my mind, and remain is something I can never predict. It’s just something that happens either during the viewing of something, or overtime a character becomes further to my liking. It’s the latter example that happened with A Bittersweet Life; during my viewing experience I was engrossed with the movie, and it’s beautiful mixture of multiple genres. Once the closing credits started rolling did it dawn on me weeks later how much I enjoyed how its protagonist was handle among other things.
A Bittersweet Life follows high ranking mobster Sun-woo (Byung-Hun Lee) spying on his boss’s girlfriend while he’s away on a business trip. I know the synopsis doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but the less revealed about the specifics of where the movie goes the better the experience will be. This is a deliberately pace film; being film noir for the first hour before changing gear into a revenge, crime action film for the remainder of its run. It has the writing style of a art house movie in terms of progression, character growth, and exploring themes, but streamlined in a more simplistic manner. In its root, it tells a simple story that’s easy to understand. The most complex it gets story wise is how ambiguous, and generalize certain aspects of Sun-woo is, but never to the point where it just seems its vagueness is use to cover up weak writing.
What’s not cut, and dry is the lead character himself Sun-woo. Being character driven, Sun-woo is only taken out off screen when needed too. These Sun-woo-less scenes typically deliver exposition, but on some occasion reveal more about the kind of person Sun-woo is, and what people think about him. Very little shown about Sun-woo past from his perspective with most of what the viewer learning about Sun-woo coming from secondary sources. The few things that Sun-woo indirectly tells the audience about himself are generalize. For instinct, the first lines in the movie tells the viewer a young Sun-woo is crying because he a had a dream that can’t be true. Exactly how this works in the Korean mobsters underworld in its favor is part of its majesty. Much like the whole ordeal of dreams being unable to come true, most of Sun-woo feelings is shown externally hardly expressing himself with words. This especially applies in the first half portraying Sun-woo as a loyal, and obedient mobster to his boss. Using the simplicity of Sun-woo interaction to convey broad ideas.
Sun-woo walks a thin line between being a one dimensional character, or a husk of a character to tackle broad themes. Thankfully, what prevents Sun-woo from being a bad character is it somewhat ambiguous nature. Due to its using broad ideas like dreams, beauty, and love for it themes it never dares to confirm anything for the viewer. However, because of how it structure in the first half the viewer is extensively shown Sun-woo reaction towards everything. It through this first half that establishes the dark reality that Sun-woo lives in, pent up frustration he must release, and starting to question the orders he’s given for the first time in life. Seeing what kind of world he lives in, and slowly revealing who Sun-woo truly is.
This all eventually culminates in the second half of the film following the guidelines of what you would expect from a revenge, crime action film. You’ll get the eventual short bursts of violence, and bloodshed in the finale when Sun-woo finally seeks revenge. Surprisingly, it also shares a dark sense of humor. My personal favorite comedic bit involves Sun-woo meeting up two gun dealers for a deal, and end up with the two gun dealers arguing so much they end up crashing their car. When the ending finally comes nothing about what the story, or what it was all intended to be about becomes any clearer to the viewer. Allowing the viewer to figure out what the specifics from the pieces it scatter around, and best part of all it earned a up to interpretation ending with the groundwork it laid out. One thing that is unquestionable about its story is that it definitely lives up to its title.
Lee Byung-hun is a scene stealer in a reserve, and personal performance. It’s a physically subdue performance spending the first half being quiet. Resulting in many scenes where the camera will simply focus on Lee Byung-hun reaction to things around him. His mannerism is well fitted for his character giving a professional aura around him with some hidden secrets. Providing a sense of a lost soul, and someone with pent up frustration. Masterfully transitioning into the second half where Lee Byung-hun receives more physically demanding scenes. In particular, an action sequence that requires him to make a messy escape from an abandoned building surrounded by people wanting to kill him. Doing his action scenes, Lee Byung-hun makes the impossibility of a lone person taking on a dozen men look convincing. Even in the first half which has two fight scenes, Lee Byung-hun is so good one can be fooled into thinking he’s some kind of martial artist. He’s gives it his all in his performance, and it’s worth the price of admission alone.
Supporting cast gets overshadow by Lee Byung-hun impressive performance, but they also get to shine whenever on screen. Shin Min-ah gives the most vulnerable performance in the cast. Unlike her male co stars, she doesn’t play a character within the criminal world. Allowing her to be more lively compare to her co-stars, and allowing her to build her performance around being ordinary. Kim Yeoung-cheol who plays the crime boss is excellently cold in his portrayal. Coming across as ruthless, and understanding simultaneously. It’s certainly his more control angered scenes that allows him to display his influence over Lee Byung-hun. There’s also Hwang Jung-min who does well playing the arrogant, and ruthless son of a rival family. Holding nothing back in his portrayal.
Lastly, Kim Jee-woon who directed, and wrote the movie did an outstanding job. He treats every tool at his disposal to tell his story equally. Be it his carefully chosen music featuring Spanish-inspired guitar pieces, techno, pseudo classical violin pieces, and jazzy/salsa influenced guitar riffs that perfectly coincide with the ever changing moods. The cinematography that is intimate during it dramatic portions, sweeping during it action sequences to see masterful action choreography very clearly, and simply moody & dreamlike with its lighting to create a noir atmosphere. The editing is seamless, especially during the fantastic action sequences were it all flows naturally. Finally, his best trait in this movie is his restraint to go too much into any genre convention, and his trust on the audience to embrace his deliberate storytelling.
A Bittersweet Life combines elements of film noir, art house cinema, action, black comedy, and gangster film into one beautiful package. Offering enough of each genre it blends together to satisfy both casual viewers, and movie enthusiasts of all kind. It’s the type of movie that is engrossing in several different way, and exceeding expectations in area you wouldn’t expect from it. Pulling of what art house cinema is best at, but with the streamlined execution of a mainstream movie that can appeal to anyone when accomplished this perfectly.
Massacre Gun follows Kuroda (Jô Shishido) a mob hitman who turns on his employers after being forced to execute his lover. Telling a lightweight story with little to grasp onto. This film is barebones in covering the essentials for competent storytelling; partial characterization, half baked exploration into the themes of brotherhood & the Yakuza code of honor, and proper escalation of story events. At it core it should be a crime thriller, but moves at a leisurely pace it becomes soothing to watch. Unfortunately, it is also attempting to tell a story about Kuroda friendship falling apart because of the ways of the Yakuza. Kuroda, and his best friend both being bound to violently resolve their war through their violent encounters, even if it against their personal intentions. This lays the groundwork for possible in depth characters who remain about the same when they are introduced sadly. Resulting in a storyline that should carry weight to it, but does not due to how little it does to create sympathy for anyone involve. A shame too since the film provide plentiful instances where expansion on character are hinted at. They are simple characters, and remain that way just like the film’s story.
Familiarity is also an issue with the film, but only if you’re familiar with Yakuza movies. If you’re not, than the film is a good introduction into Nikkatsu’s Yakuza films. Covering the familiar of loyalty, blood brotherhood, unrequited love, not following the same wrong path, loosing oneself, and yep that’s about it. Character archetypes are here make the cast of characters; from the age old veteran wanting who is bound to his boss, the best friend in a rival gang beholden to loyalty over friendship, the partner thinking of calling it quits, and the upcoming youngest member desiring his chance to join the Yakuza. Those familiar with Nikkatsu’s Yakuza films will know what to expect, and Massacre Gun is more than comfortable with itself on that front. For newcomers into this kind of films it’ll serve a good introduction to get familiarize with the basics of Yakuza films in a more grounded state.
The only aspect of the writing that shines is the character of Saburo (Jiro Okazaki). He’s given a history, a dream, and conflict that gets expanded on as the film progresses. It initially starts a story about him being unable to become a boxer, and grows into Saburo finding himself again in life. Unlike the main storyline, Saburo has more to him that the film is more than happy to flesh out leading to him being the most engaging part of the movie. Unfortunately, his part is superfluous in the overarching narrative with his biggest contribution in the movie is having to be rescued twice in order to escalate events. Being a missed opportunity to add something more to the simplistic, and lightweight film.
Another cool shot, but why the burning ships in the background I got no clue.
One aspect that is unquestionable about the film is that it has class to it. Without question, this has to be the classiest presented Yakuza movie I’ve seen unrivaled by any other. Helmed by director Yasuharu Hasebe he surprisingly shows no sign of inexperience despite it being his second directorial effort in his career. Giving the film the qualities of a cinematic experience that enhances what could have a basic film. Through his eye for visuals he is able to create a beautiful looking movie from the first frame. Do except the questionable visuals choices at times; like one where there are burning ships in the background for no reason, but thankfully odd visuals touches like that are sparse in the film.
What isn’t sparse is his careful attention to framing. Several sequences in the movie he’s able to perfectly show turmoil without dialogue. An example of this is during a wide shot scene when Jiro Okazaki is depressed, sitting down at a bar looking down at his bandage hand, and hearing jazz music being played. The elegant usage of lighting in crisp black and white, and atmosphere further empathizes the mood meant to be convey in this scene. Subtle touches like these to convey characters make the sillier moments, like a bomb being strapped to a dead body, be easily overlooked. Another highlight of the film is a sequence where a major character seemingly escapes a hit, and tricking the viewer that he has made a getaway only to realize that he’s trapped up against a wall surrounded by men with gun. Yes, it takes an absurd amounts of bullets before the man is down, but it’s a great sequence that gives cinematic quality to simplistic writing.
When the film numerous actors aren’t wearing suits to class things up the soundtrack composed of Jazz keep things classy. With numerous musical interludes, and (somewhat) erotic dancing splice during the movie makes it come across as elegant. From a technical standpoint, the music used shouldn’t work, but it does. On the violence side there’s not much of it. Same with the body count not being close what a person would consider a massacre, but the action sequences are fine being carried by smart direction. Except for one that takes place on a ship; the sequence is finely crafted, and confined until the two major characters escape from a trap. The characters are corner on all direction, and there seems no way out. This action sequence ends when one of the two major characters shoots the light, and then cuts to the two running out of the ship. Due to how it was framed it’s impossible to tell how exactly they escape a constant barrage of gunfire when surrounded. Aside from this slip up, the old fashion action sequences are pretty well done.
No one here likes the what the future holds for Nikkatsu studio
The only actor in the film who I felt shine was Jiro Okazaki. It helps that he has the most fleshed out characters, but even without that his screen presence is simply attention grabbing without being commanding. He has all the charm to pull off his character with ease, and the dramatic chops to subtly act out the inner separation of his character. He’s a delight to see on screen, even if his supporting role ensures he’s not given the center attention.
Jo Shishido stars in the film, and delivers a solid performance. His botox cheeks gives him a recognizable look, but in terms of acting here he isn’t allowed much range. Always being bound to restraint any emotion to just being collected. Tatsuya Fiji is a bit more loosed, but has the same problem with the material being too limited. Also, a moment in the film has him slapping a woman several, and having sex with her which the woman complies with. It was a different era, but luckily the direction prevents that moment from being worse than it could have been.
Got to say it again, film is beautifully shot
Hideaki Nitani is the second standout in the film playing Jo Shishido friend in a rival gang. Emoting his characters complex emotions with ease. Takashi Kanda portrayal as a Yakuza boss is simple; just come off as evil, and over controlling which he does. Aside from that, the other remaining in the cast from Yoko Yamamoto, Tamaki Sawa, and the rest of the actress simply act concerned over their men. They don’t get much to do either, much like Ken Sanders who plays the jazz player Chico, but make the most with what they can.
Massacre Gun is an above average movie whose only stand out is Jiro Okazaki performance, and its classy direction from Yasuharu Hasebe elevating what could have been a mediocre Yakuza movie. It’s a evident case of style over substance that for those familiar with Yakuza movies make it worth looking into a little. While for newcomers it serves as a good introduction into Yakuza films having all the traits other Yakuza movie past, and future would retain. It might not offer anything unique besides it’s style, but it still makes for a solid viewing experience.
Today’s film is three things; an arthouse film, a leisurely pace film at nearly three hours long, and very mindful of the heavy theme it touches on. On paper, arthouse is typically something I ignore as some will typically sacrifice narrative worth for alluring visuals. Depending on the film the abstract accompany by pleasant visuals can add to something, and other times just feel like a complete waste of time. The lack of any middle ground in terms of quality, from my experience, prevents me from checking more arthouse films. However, Kamikaze Taxi is an exception in both areas; it’s exactly what I expected out of a arthouse film, but exceeded everything I thought it could possibly be. I am willing to go as far as to say this film might just be an underappreciated classic.
KamiKaze Taxi follows a revenge-seeking man, and his foolish friends plan to rob a yakuza gang. Despite that simple synopsis, the film covers much broader subjects beside vengeance. It touches on violence in many perspective from the conceived honorable sacrifice of a Kamikaze to the senseless nature of war. You might even be surprise for a film that has plenty to say about violence there’s hardly any of it to be found within the actual film. Instead, you’re treated to a cast of fleshed out characters with some level of depths to them. Tackling heavier subject matters, especially for the Japanese audience, on a nuance level.
The film begins in a pseudo-documentary style, commenting on the presence of Japanese with foreign upbringing, and how they are not looked upon as “true Japanese”. Further illustrating this is the first sequence where young Yakuza Tatsuo Minami (Kazuya Takahashi) is introduced to Senator Domon whom comments he hopes Tatsuo is a full blooded Japanese from his Korean sounding name. It’s not just a one off comment that makes up Senator Domon character, but several scenes throughout the film where he freely share his racist remarks, even on live television. Later receiving characterization on his likes for Jazz music, and perceiving himself as a true Kamikaze with his boastful nationalistic pride. All the major characters in the film receive this level of characterization.
Slow moving as it might be in its pacing it uses that to have secondary character to provide humanizing moments amidst the aftermath of a violent sequence. One such example of this occurred early on in the movie; Tatsuo job is to set up Senator Domon with women to sleep with, and after a bad night (which occurs offscreen) he has a lengthy conversation with the women involved. Being unable to view them the same way his Yakuza brothers do, and it’s many moments like these that elevate Kamikaze Taxi into something special. What short bursts of violence it contains become layer with meaning for the participants, and for the viewer weaves an engaging narrative sharing a intimate understanding on it complex issues.
“Bite on this while I kill you gently”
Kamikaze Taxi starts with Tatsuo Minami story of desiring vengeance is just the beginning of the movie before transitioning into the meditative phase of a road movie an hour in. It is right here where an already good movie with a great foundation becomes even better. On the other corner we have the other major character of Kantake (Koji Yakusho). The unlikely bond, and connection Tatsuo, and Kantake form elevates the preceding events of simple ideas, but broad introductions, and give them depth here. Themes such as what is truly consider Japanese, the long term effects of violence on a person, what defines a Kamikaze or Yakuza, moving from past prejudice, and other subjects fully develop.
One of Kamikaze Taxi noteworthy scene requires the characters to reflect on their life choices through a seminar of sort. Encompassing the comedic, and the dark nature of its characters into a single sequence. Scenes like these are a dime of dozen in Kamikaze Taxi allowing even minor characters to influence the larger narrative in the end.
Not bound to just tackling contemporary issues specifically pertaining to Japanese culture it also delves into more universal themes. The already mention viewpoints of violence, pride, love, freedom, and ultimately forgiveness. Much like its characters, the story leisurely makes several stop during its journey. Either to build the bond between its lead through something simple like navigating a map of Japan, or taking a breather from the harrowing situation with a drink. Characters aren’t afraid to discuss the harsher aspects of life the closer they get to their journey’s destination, even contemplating simply escaping from their dangerous endeavors. Through their many exchanges, understanding these characters along with developing the fictional backdrop tackling real issues become easier to grasp.
What better way to end a fun party than telling everyone about my tragic past.
The journey this film will take you on isn’t all smooth. For an ambitious film with a desire to tackle a number of themes it is riddle with some issues. One of these being the complete disappearance of the pseudo-documentary framing device from the narrative. It’s disappearance isn’t harmful to the movie since it setups all the working pieces that later pay off once they get fleshed out. What is potentially harmful to the viewing experience is the circling around of established information. Kantake in the movie expresses his issues finding work in a country because of his ethnicity, but the documentary portion of the movie already set that up in its opening minutes. In context, Kantake explaining his situation makes sense, but within the narrative it’s just reiterating information with nothing adding on to it. They also eventually disappear from the movie making it have narrative inconsistency in its execution.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for viewer in this movie is the way it ponders. There’s a lengthy sequence at some hotel where the characters are enjoying downtime from their journey. What occurs is a series of goofy antics before getting into the characters reflecting on their choices that led them to this moments. These halts in the movie can take several minutes before offering anything that could progress the story. Naturally being all over the place when it shifts gear into being a meditative road movie. These issues might detract from the experience for some viewers, and to a greater extent hurt the viewing experience since the film delve into many subjects.
By the end of the film, it’s obvious by how much I gushed about the writing I simply was in awe from such a thought provoking piece of cinema. Rarely does a film for me ever reaches the narrative heights Kamikaze Taxi accomplishes in virtually all aspects. I was never bored watching Kamikaze Taxi thanks to its engaging characters whom I grew to like a lot on their journey. Spending so much time leisurely developing, and fleshing out everything it tackle created an rich experience not offered to me in many films. Its shortcomings aren’t things I’ll excuse, but they are weaknesses I can forgive for everything I feel it excels in creating.
In its natural habitat, the third wheel.
Director Masato Harada helms the film with ease. Visually arresting with it neon nights city, flute center score, and a dreamlike mood that make it an absorbing viewing. The Peruvian flute like music in particular grew on me over time giving the film a unique soundtrack that I can’t recall other Yakuza movie ever having. With the exception of a few scenes requiring over acting, Masato Harada is able to keep the film realism in tact. Providing the film a grounded touch that it needed, especially during the more solemn scenes when characters are opening up about themselves. Rarely ever using music to influence the audience what they should think during an important character building scene. He also isn’t afraid to inject a bit of humor to prevent the film from becoming overly moody. One sequence where his direction is a bit of a misfired is when Koji Yakusho, and Taketoshi Naito (Senator Domon) only scene together involves an over the top outside inference in their encounter. It’s pretty odd witnessing something over the top happen in the movie when everything else is somewhat grounded.
Standout actor here is obviously Koji Yakusho as Kantake who provides the film most grounded performance. Carefully able to hide the inner turmoil of his character without making him come across as emotionless towards those around him. Without question, his shining moment of acting is when during an long take he reveals his tragic past to the other actors. It’s a scene that is perfectly solemn, and delivered with the right amount of emotion. Overshadowing his co-star Kazuya Takahashi who plays Tatsuo. Takashi isn’t bad in his role either; displaying his character insecurity to fully be a Yakuza with such a sensitive side to him. As the film progresses, Kazuya portrayal of Tatsuo slowly matures into a deep thinking young man by the end. Embodying the puzzling mindset of Tatsuo perfectly. When together, Koji Yakusho, and Kazuya Takahashi are simply wonderful together.
Those wounds are nothing compare to what I went through in Battle Royale.
Taketoshi Naito who plays the racist, and at times misogynistic Senator Domon does a great job in his performance. By choosing to not over act his character feels more humanize, and detestable for it. Benefiting the film by giving it a more realistic depiction of this film’s version of a villain without actually being one. Mickey Curtis who makes sporadic appearances in the film is a treat to watch. His laid back attitude as a Yakuza underling rightfully gets across his character experience. When needed too, he definitely display his tougher side. Finally, Reiko Kataoka who just like Koji Yakusho later becomes a mainstain in the story. She also deliver a great performance on the level of Koji Yakusho, and Kazuya Takahashi. These onscreen chemistry is simply perfect able to make you believe they have created a great bond together despite the small amount of time they spent together.
Kamikaze Taxi is my kind of art film; slow moving, but visually alluring, loosely meditative narrative, and handling of several subject matter gracefully. It’s a film that was a more than pleasant discovery during my viewing, and giving me far more than I could have ever expected from it. I expected, from the trailer, a lengthy Yakuza epic with violence throughout, but instead what I got is a far more ambition, humanizing film that not provides frank criticism on Japan’s culture, but also a film that never bored me, and serves as a personal reminder the profound power arthouse cinema can have.
Today’s film, The Tigers (1991), might simply come across as just another obscure Hong Kong film forgotten by time. However, it’s the star studded of the Five Tiger Generals of TVB that will ensure it place in Hong Kong cinema history, even the reason is superficial. The Five Tiger Generals of TVB consisted of Michael Miu, Kent Tong, Felix Wong, Andy Lau, and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai who were the most popular young actors in Hong Kong during the 1980s. If you’re a fan of even one of these actors than eventually you’ll stumble upon this film on their filmography, and like me, be surprised by the amount of talent in the film. Sadly, whose in the film is about as interesting as it ever gets. While some of the Five Tigers of TVB have gone off to star in some classic films that have become landmark films in Hong Kong cinema. The Tigers (1991) is going to be a footnote in it stars legacy.
The Tigers follows fives Cops that find their careers, and their lives in jeopardy when they spend a gangster’s bribe money after releasing him from custody during a drug bust. The movie’s premise immediately falls upon when it decided our first introduction to our characters sould be them betting on horses while on duty. It’s this initial irresponsible impression the film is unable to shake off becoming detrimental in its failing. Before the whole “should we take the money” plot point comes into play. Everything leading up to that plot point paints our officers as goofy, and easy going. Not treating what case they’re currently assigned to seriously. So when the officers are considering whether, or not to take away a suitcase filled with money, and not report it to anyone of course it comes across something they would do without question. Except for the fact it wants to present this fall into temptation with shades of grey, which you can’t do when only one out of the five characters presented actually appears to be taking their job seriously.
So seeing one officers who’s remaining silent on the matter, and not telling his superiors talks to another corrupt officers to remind him why he became an officer is sketchy. For starter, the silent officer values his friendship more so than upholding justice, and yet this character thinks he holds the higher ground when compared to his friends who actually took the money, and spend it. Obviously, just because the character sees corruption in his line of work, is in a position to prevent it from getting worse, and not participating in it doesn’t make him an upstanding officer. If the characters were more fleshed out in terms of caring about their jobs than maybe all the conversations about how they will make things right might actually hold some weight.
Another weakness from the writing is the uneven characterization for its large cast of characters. Most of them can be defined as easy going officers whom want to make more money. Some of the characters are decently developed, and some fleshed out with their own subplots most of which don’t matter in the long run. However, on the other half you get characters who just come across as background fodder despite being established as good friends. There’s also the noteworthy weakness that none of the officers are given traits to stand out. All are jokey, partially serious, and slowly crack under pressure. Homogenizing nearly all the characters unknowingly. Also, since the film is incapable of developing characters the “mind games” the corrupt officers take part in against the film’s villain feels dragged out. When the “mind games” portion start around the end of the first act virtually no progress in the story is made until the climax of the movie comes. This is because it feel like the story is prolonging the inevitable by having scheme, after scheme failed in either getting the villain killed, or getting the police officers locked up.
Dialogue doesn’t fare any better being the routine “what does being an officer mean to you”, “what separates your action from criminals”, and “we are bound to uphold the law, not break it” variety with conversations going where you would expect them too. The issue with this are the characters participating in these conversations never had the high ground. From the opening that showed the officers not taking their line of work seriously, even during a police raid making sex jokes, all the way to the end these officers simply come off as irresponsible, and stupid. You would think characters who’ve all been serving various amount of years in the police force would know how to hide the fact they illegally acquire a huge sum of money during a raid. Apparently not since the characters aren’t able to hide their tracks for simple reasons like buying an expensive car that can’t be bought on their budget, or giving a daughter a large sum of cash for her to start her business. Made even stupider by the fact they mentioned earlier in the movie they wouldn’t do these of things to because they could caught, yet still do it.
Now comes my biggest point of criticism in the writing; it’s inability to represent morality in shades of grey, or black and white. The villain of the film for instance uses his hold over the officers for his own needs. Never at any point in the film is he given a fair shake that would allow him to be sympathetic. This cartoonish villain doesn’t belong in the same story that is attempting to make police officers that took bribe money appear morally grey. A villian who enjoys giving our main characters a difficult time, and takes pleasure in killing some of them muddles it’s execution of being morally ambiguous. You end up with a film with a cartoonish villain who has nothing much going for him besides being evil. However, when one of the police officers takes the stolen money to pay for his brother education it’s meant to be a noble cause. You simply can’t do that because then the villain becomes justified for demanding the police to do his bidding for taking the money he made through (likely) illegal means. This issue could have been easily remedied if the film didn’t attempt to make what the police did with some sense of righteousness.
As for the actual story of the film that’s hard to discuss because nearly all character arcs are never balanced out in its nearly 2 hours runtime. A subplot revolving around an old police officer trying to reconcile with his daughter that doesn’t add much to the movie. It would have helped if the reconciling part wasn’t resolved by a third party after one conversation that basically amounted to “Your dad does care for you, have you considered that”. Another storyline would be an officer finding his brother during a raid doing shady activities. That plot point feels like it just disappears after its brought up. Instead of using this moment to create an interesting dynamic between the brothers it chooses not to do anything with it because it’s not a well written movie. There’s also another officer who worries about getting killed because it’ll mean his family will be left with no money. This officer is hardly ever shown interacting with his family rendering what could have been an emotional drive seem shallow.
When it tries to be thrilling it fails because inevitable sequences are dragged out; like the police releasing a gang leader from custody in order to get the villain killed, and there being a fight that breaks out. Whenever the story acts like whatever it does is a big deal it gets boring over time before realizing you still have over forty minutes left in the movie. Tonally, there’s no balance in it. It’s somewhat comedic in the beginning of the film, and than suddenly turns dark before the first act ends. The writers had a bunch of ideas about what story they wanted to tell, and just called it a day before developing them into something cohesive that would work in anything it attempted to do.
Despite my gripes with the story my actual biggest disappointment from the movie is generally the weak performances from its star-studded cast. Sure, maybe Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau is the only name you recognize, but Tony Leung, Felix Wing, Miu Roi Wai, and Ken Tong aren’t small players either. First of all, Andy Lau performance in the film is weak. Usually he can make the most even out of cardboard characters. Sadly in this movie his usual charm is nowhere to be found, and when it comes to his dramatic chops the poor direction hurts him. For example, there’s a sequence where he sees one of his friend getting killed, and while he’s mourning a song he sang for the movie is inserted into the sequence with on the nose lyrics about how conflicting his character is. It made a dramatic scene unintentionally funny, and it’s doesn’t help either the song used in this sequence is also used to close out the movie further hammering the point in.
There’s the beginning of the movie where most of the cast are acting goofy. Andy Lau during the brief lighthearted moments appears to be having fun. His dramatic acting is the opposite delivery scene after scene like he’s directly reading of from the script without adding his own touch. Becoming robotic in nature when delivery his scenes. Rarely does he deliver a scene in the movie that feels natural because once the lighthearted moments end he always looks pissed off. This could have been remedied if the writing included more moments of Andy Lau character expressing how conflicting he was about the turn of events. While Andy Lau does have the acting chops to play a unrepentant character the direction gives him little on how much to convey in scenes.
Tony Chiu-Wai Leung who plays Tai-Pi fares worse than Andy Lau. Whereas Andy Lau will have moments that displays the strength of his acting abilities. Tony Chiu-Wai isn’t allowed that luxury as he suffers the most from jarring tonal shifts. He overacts the comedic bits of his character so whenever he does any serious scene it’s difficult for him to come off convincingly. Seeing him be overly goofy detracts from his dramatic scenes, and in return almost comes off the worse among the star studded. Also, his goofy clothing dressing up like a teenager with his baseball cap adds to the problem.
There’s Miu Kiu-Wai who unlike Tony Chiu is simply wooden. His lack of effort to emote eventually makes him disappear into the background, and make you forget the fact he’s in the film. At least Felix Wong Yat-Wah who is constantly just making an angry face for the entire film stands out a bit. Sure, Felix Wong unmoving angry face makes it impossible to care for him, but he puts effort in emoting when it he has too. Tony Chiu is the weakest link in the film in terms of acting.
The only actor who delivers a good performance in the film is easily Ka-Yan Leung as Uncle Tim. Unlike the rest of the cast, his performance is more grounded, and in line with the film’s end goal. He never borders into the realm of silliness like his other co-stars thanks to his committed performance. He never lets up on his serious portrayal being one of the oldest actor in the cast, but when requires he’ll loosen up a little bit in moments that don’t require him to be serious. In these moments, it’s not jarring seeing him having fun, and most importantly refrains himself from being overly silly like his other co-stars. There’s also a surprise appearance by Shing Fui-On who keeps appearing in obscure Hong Kong movies I write about, and here he’s once again casted as a criminal. He’s does fine, but I find his appearance more amusing more than it actually should be. There’s also Philip Chan as a superintendent which is another surprise.
Ken Tong plays the villain in the movie, and typically over acts in virtually all his sequences. His character is to dislike, but it’s biggest drawback is falling into the annoying category. When Ken Tong starts taking up more screen time as the film progresses so his obnoxious evil laughter. Over acting while constantly laughing is a recipe for annoying. Sure, it makes you want to see Ken Tong gets killed quickly in the movie, but when’s far from subtle in his acting it diminishes the payoff. His over acting further highlights weakness in the writing going out of his way make his character detastable by any means. In a ironic way Ken Tong succeed in bringing to life this over the top villain, but at the cost of being increasingly annoying.
If you’re expecting any thrills from this film you’ll be disappointed. Aside from the fact the script is terrible written, director Eric Tsang doesn’t know how to rack up tension. I’ve already went into lengths about a majority of the actors inability to balance the tone of their material, but Eric Tsang is just as responsible for that. Committing mistakes that an amatuer is more likely to make; like inserting a song from Andy Lau during a death scene, and the right on the nose lyrics (paraphrasing) “I know I’ve done wrong, so let me take the blame” is not how drama should be delivered. While on music, it’s largely forgettable. His biggest strong suit is obviously comedy since he felt the most comfortable helming those scenes, and simply having fun, even if the humor was off. However, the absence of tension is noteworthy, especially if you’re making a mind game between two opposing forces, and the only thing you could think of to raise tension is by having loud music play more frequently throughout the movie. There’s also the lack of action, but since it’s more in line of a crime thriller the lack of them isn’t a criticism. Although, the poor quality of them is. From a shootout that is ruined by slapsticks to the climatic sequence in a mall that relies to heavily on making its villain nearly invincible to make it exciting. It’s a climax not worth sitting through a chore of a film.
The Tigers only appeal is the star studded cast of actors whom headline the movie, but even than only Ka-Yan Leung comes out looking good. It’s just a complete mess in representing it’s morality, handling its characters, and especially building tension for what’s meant to be a thriller. For something that has a star studded something better should have been expected than what was given. Even if you’re not a fan of any of these actors, this film doesn’t come close to being a worthwhile watch by any means.
Best of the Best follows Dee (Jacky Cheung) a member of the SDU, Hong Kong’s version of SWAT, who engages in a personal vendetta when his new girl Heidi (Sammi Cheng) turns out to be the daughter of evil triad Ngan Kwan (Paul Chun). If this synopsis sounds like an interesting movie to you, sorry to say, but it’s a slough of a movie to get through. Before the title card of the movie comes up, it shows Dee enjoying a birthday as a kid with his brother, and father resulting in a tragic incident resulting in the death of his brother. The person responsible for accidentally killing his brother is Little Ball (Ng Man-tat), Dee’s own father, whom hit his own son in the head with a gas cylinder during a scuffle with a criminal. At first, I thought the story was going to take the route of being more of a drama with some action sequences sprinkle in. This sequence while rushed sets it up that way. It doesn’t happen as the film is neither about redemption, forgiveness, and moving forward. Instead, what’s the movie focuses on romance that feels undercooked despite the amount of time dedicated to it. On top of that, opportunities that could have taken more advantage of the premise to the romance eventful isn’t taken.
I could also use drink after watching this movie.
So dumbfounded by this, imagine my surprise less than half an hour into the movie seeing meandering scene, after meandering scene to only realize it’s going to focus on the romance aspect of its story. Confusing since the movie takes a while before even introducing the love interest Heidi, yet feels compel to rush the growth of the relationship. It takes so long before the actual main story props it head in making previous events feel disjointed. Going from a rescue mission inside a mall to a date doesn’t make a good transition between directions. Granted, action logic dictates a damsel in distress might fall in love with the hero after saving her from four gun wielding masked goons, and pulling her out of a car seconds away from exploding. However, action movie logic doesn’t excuse the rushed romance, the lack of direction, tonal inconsistency, and especially boredom. Half the reason for my boredom results in the same the couple simply talking about daddy issues, and the other time talking about running away when both characters grown adults. They don’t have the same restrictions applied to them if they were teenagers meaning they have less obstacles in their way if they both choose to run away together.
A major reason for this feeling like a chore to me was the lack of involvement with the characters. For example, Dee works with SDU, and no point considers putting his father, or any other love ones under some sort protection from Ngan Kwan once his men attack him more frequently. Pointlessly endangering people around him that shouldn’t be caught up in it just because he’s head over heels for Heidi. Then there’s also Heidi who also doesn’t go to police to ensure her lover safety. Heck, she could have threaten her father to that she would tell the police incriminating details about his dealings just to make sure he backs off. She doesn’t do this either. Aside from not getting help when available, there’s also the lone that Dee’s conflict with Little Ball remains underdeveloped for the whole film. Once the time skip occurs, there’s no expansion on the trouble relationship between Dee, and his father. There’s no step forward for Dee to finally forgive his father, and there’s no progression in forgiving himself for the incident that push his son away from him.
There’s also the untapped potential of exploring years of hatred Dee has against his father action as a abusive police officer. If explored, it would explain why Dee is dedicated as he is to being a good SDU officer. Bringing me to the gift his brother gave to him before he died. While the sentiment is nice to have its main character carry around a memento he cherish from his brother it’s no point used to further expand on anything. There’s a point in the film where Dee’s loses the gift his brother gave him while dealing with his drunk father on the streets. Instead of using as another hurdle that has to be overcome, or Dee finally letting go of the tragic event. What the film does is simply play some sad music, close up on Jacky Cheung being sad, and end. Scratching my head wondering what was the point of establishing Dee’s brother gift as something significant if the story itself doesn’t do any with it.
Jacky! Don’t asleep on duty!
Characterization is fairly handle well. While the romance of Dee, and Heidi suffer because it’s chooses to rush instead of building it is their weakest point. As individual characters their some interesting ideas surrounding them. Sadly, that all they end up being, ideas that could have been. For instance, the film after the timeskip is somewhat lighthearted during it romantic scenes, but the film progresses it slowly get harsher. However, because of the opening sequence the harshness immediately goes into lighthearted, and back into harshness instead of just being a steady flow from one tone to another. Then finally, despite the 90 minute length of Best of the Best half of it simply feels like it meanders around. This could be due to several reasons; it’s nearly half an hour before the main storyline even gets established, information that be given out quickly take longer than needed, and around half of the plot points don’t go anywhere. Even when there was action on screen the feel even made those boring due to a lack of urgency stemming from characters disappearing, and appearing inconsistently in the story. One thing it is consistent at is failing to create anything remotely engaging.
Jacky Cheung plays SDU officer Dee, and his acting is above average. It isn’t good because simply feels like he directly reading from the script instead of being the character. There’s many moments where Jacky Cheung is meant to be saddened by certain events, but puts on a sad face, and calls it a day. However, the limited material him (along with the rest of the cast) is his biggest hurdle. In that sense, he what is required of him adequately enough. However, it is a rather poor showing of his acting abilities when he comes across no differently in his tearjerker scenes as he does in his romance scenes.
Sammi Cheng plays Heidi it’s underwhelming. When she’s meant to be cheery she is cheery. When she has to be sad she is sad. In this movie at least, she’s not capable of doing much with her material coming off unconvincing whenever she is required to be serious. Her only decent moments of acting are when the film picks up a lighter tone. However, as soon as that disappears her delivery feels robotic. Paul Chun plays Ngan Kwan, and with the exception of one scene in the climax he’s even worse. Given the direction wanted to do something serious, Chun over acting is out place in the movie. He can’t make a one dimensional character any fun, or hateable since he simply just shouts all his lines, and hoping scary sounding music will help mask some of his stoic line delivery.
The best actor is Ng Man-tat, and that’s simply because he comes off as the most pathetic out of the cast. Man-tat character is constantly depressed whenever he talks to his son, and attempts to be happy when he’s not around. During his dramatic scenes, he pour everything he could into those scenes more than the writing actually did. Convincingly getting across he’s a tortured soul who still wants to be a good father, but doesn’t know the right path. It’s Ng Man-tat who is the one bright spot among the better than average acting. Sadly, that puts everything else beneath him.
One of the film’s few rare moments of not being boring.
Final thing worth even bringing are the action scenes, and they are all poor. Director Herman Yau simply wanted to get them done as quickly as possible. Making what little action is has seem underwhelming because there’s no coordination in it. There’s also a lack of creativity in them; like a chase sequence that requires Jacky Cheung to run away from a dozen armed goons. A majority of the chase sequence simply has him running through alleys, throwing some objects to throw his pursuers off, entering a more confined place to get a lead, and just barely making it into a taxi to getaway. There’s other action sequences like these, but very few have of them have me as bored as Best of the Best. The climax suffers from a lack of proper staging as Jacky Cheung simply goes into a wide open public area, start shooting baddies, and enters a building to confront Paul Chun. This whole climatic sequence doesn’t have much happening in it. The one stunt that occurred in this scene involved a stuntman laying down in a incinerator of sorts for a couple of seconds before the camera cuts. It’s not spectacular in execution, but it’s something eventful that required effort to capture. This is one of those films where even the action won’t keep you awake.
Best of the Best aims to be more than your standard average action, but ends up being worse as a whole because of it. It’s a half baked drama with boring characters, a romance that overtakes the story forgetting it’s intention, and becoming a total mess of a movie by the end it. It’s a movie that doesn’t accomplish anything, nor rewards viewers with much for their investment in it.
I always disagreed with the notion that there’s a set number of ways to write stories. However, there are times where it does feel like that is the case. Not just in movies, but in general media that I consume. It also doesn’t help in the little time I did spend in college taking classes on writing further expanded my knowledge on fictional writing. One thing I didn’t need to learn in my classes is that execution is key. No matter how many type of stories you write, or experience understanding how to make those elements work together can lead to making a good product. Hence, today’s movie while overly familiar for viewers who’ve seen The Untouchables execute the same general story into a decent film.
First Shot is set during a time of widespread police corruption, Wong Yat-chung (Ti Lung) is a stubborn cop who takes on both the mob and the political establishment. In terms of story, it’s lifts from heavily from Brain De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). If you’ve seen that film than you more, or less will know what to expect from First Shot. However, if you haven’t seen The Untouchable, here’s a couple of lifted plot points. In both, you have a good guy cop against the corrupt police system, the main character recruiting at a academy to ensure the officer they recruit aren’t corrupted, the struggle to maintain a key witness safe from the film’s villain, a scene with the main character departs from his family to put them in police protection, a vocal confrontation between the film’s hero & villain surrounded by the press after a ally of the protagonist gets killed, and both leading character getting betrayed by other high ranking officers. Also, both movies are based around true events. To call the writing of First Shot uninspired would be an understatement.
Now that the similarities have been brought up, the area they stand apart in are easy. First Shot is significantly less subtle with its portrayal of factual events. For starter, all the corrupt police officers have no qualm about showing how corrupt they are in public. Dialogue goes of it way to reinforce this fact in several scenes. There’s the slimy villain whom typically who to do something evil whenever he’s onscreen. Making the preceding events in the story a basic good guys versus bad guy story. It keeps the viewer engage in its predictable story by fleshing out its heroes, and going through fulfilling character arcs. Just like in The Untouchable, no one in this film safe from death, and it’s uncertain who is exactly next up on the chopping floor. The cast of First Shot aren’t fleshed out enough to ensure you’ll care about them, but you will see beyond them cannon fodder.
Another advantage to the film is the chase itself to lock up the villain. Seeing the heroes coming inches close to lock away their man is an engaging part of the film. Same with the deviation whenever it goes away from it source of inspiration. Alleviating the serious with some comedic scenes which generally tend to be less over the top than films typically produce in Hong Kong around this time. Resulting in a dynamic cast of heroes who makes the film somewhat worthwhile when action is absent.
What garner mix results are some of the subplots. While characters are generally fleshed out, minus the villains, some of the subplots come out of nowhere. In the middle of the film’s climactic action sequence, one of the character reveals he’ll take revenge against the man who killed his father. This plot point was never brought up beforehand making it a convoluted way to add tension in the climax. There’s also the romantic subplot which isn’t as bad, though doesn’t come across as tragic as the film expected it to be. Would have probably helped if it didn’t immediately switch gear into a climatic action sequence over lingering on the fact an important character just died. There’s also the unexpected gay bar scene where the heroes have to undercover to gather intel, and it’s um, something odd to place into the movie to get a quick laugh. I’ll leave it at that.
What it lacks in writing quality it makes up for it in star power. For starter, the usually great Ti Lung delivers in being a good leading man. While nowhere near his best work, Ti Lung in First Shot becomes the embodiment of his character making the typical good cop feel more human. Unlike the writing, Ti Lung imbues more emotion into scenes than what would have been required of him. For example, when he’s confront Simon Yam in alley it would have been enough if Ti Lung just come across as a bitter man. However, Ti Lung comes across as more understanding, and disappointment from how he deliver his dialogue. Of course, Ti Lung partakes in some action sequences, but there’s not much of them here in terms of gunplay. What there is in fight sequences are also brief, though well put together to make up for the lack of action. I wasn’t expecting Ti Lung to partake in a choreograph fight sequence against Waise Lee in the climax, but I welcome that.
Simon Yam delivers the best performance in the cast as Sam Mok. Portraying a police officer who seeks redemption for his misgivings. He comes across the most humane out of his co-stars. While other actors also do a good job, they do feel samey since the script doesn’t offer much differentiation between them. Yam is the exception convincingly turning around a character whose fearful for his life as a officer, and seamlessly transform it into an officer looking to do right. Portraying the film’s closest thing to a complex character in a natural progression despite having to share the screen with several other actors. All the while never losing his charming side to him that makes him likable.
Maggie Cheung in the film doesn’t offer much in her role. He does well, but unfortunately unlike her male co-star she only gets one moment to portray any sadness for her character. She given much of the exposition to deliver, although she does make the most of what she can in a thankless role. Then there’s Canti Lau, and Andy Hui playing the young cadets who are best friends. While the script never capitalizes on the potential of these characters the actor sure do. It’s unlikely you’ll be shedding tears whenever one of these two bites the dust, but you’ll care to some degree. Canti Lau does pretty well in his fight scenes.
Waise Lee plays the film villain, and chews the scenery in all his scenes. He holds nothing back in comically playing his playing role as serious as possible. He lacks much in the way of facial expressions aside from looking angry in every scene he’s in. Same thing applies to Batt Leung-Gam who plays a silence henchman. He lacks the menacing presence for his type of character, but makes up for his appearances with his fighting abilities in his action sequences. Director David Lam does a competent job helming the movie, but nothing to elevate the movie unlike his cast of actors. Finally, Lowell Lo composed the music for the film. While the only piece of music in the film that stands out is the one that plays the movie out during the ending credit it’s all around serviceable. It’s hardly noticeable, but does the job fine.
First Shot is a solid crime action flick in its own right. It doesn’t come close to matching it’s source of inspiration, The Untouchable, on any level. What it does do is execute a similar story into a straight forward action movie with mild success.
Poor Subtitles Quality
My favorite badly sub line of the movie
In the off chance you somehow manage to find a viewable copy of this by any means the hardsubs are very poor. Several times throughout my viewing of the film would there be grammatical, and spelling errors. Other points portions of the subtitles would be cut off making it easy to lose vital information. Considering at the time of this posting I’ve yet to find any other official release of First Shot. The poor subtitles will be a drawback for anyone with a passing interesting to view it, or unintentionally fun by how bad it is. Either way, take that in account you plan on viewing First Shot at any point.