Nightfall (2012) is a rather frustrating film by Chow Hin Yeung Roy who directs and shares the screenwriting credits with Chi-long To. It’s trying so hard to be dark and serious in playing with themes about the power that can come to those with status and reputation, while those lower down in the food chain are often left as victims of the system. It should also be about revenge and the fact that, under the right conditions, there can be redemption for past sins. But it all gets sucked down into a well of confusion and although we can bring good clear water out of that well by the individual bucket, there’s no continuity of supply. We’re cast adrift at the beginning of the film and never allowed to empathise with any of the key characters.
So let’s talk about the film’s real themes. In the Hong Kong under the British, the main societal values were monitored or controlled by the ex-pats. For example, Han Tsui (Michael Wong), a great musician, might be lionised and given a certain level of protection. He could maintain an external reality of perfection. So, when his daughter Eva (Janice Man) was raped and murdered, the police would be sure to beat a confession out of Wong Yuen-yeung (Nick Cheung) the young man found in the house. Even though he might protest his innocence, our musician would be able to afford a top British barrister who could argue the case that the sentence of twenty years was the bare minimum for such an obvious and serious crime.
In the opening sequences, we’re shown scenes before the initial death and during the time Wong spends in jail. In particular, there’s a fight in the showers between Wong and three other prisoners. Although Wong is injured, the other three are more seriously damaged. Yet it’s never clear why we see this fight. It’s possible that Han Tsui paid the three to kill him. He may simply have made enemies in jail. But the only sure thing we can glean from this is that he’s a tough street fighter. There’s no attempt made through explanation to engage our sympathies for him as a victim or to see him as a monster. It’s exactly the same when he leaves prison at the end of his sentence. We see behaviour which might be that of an obsessional stalker of young women, or it might be a man in pursuit of revenge. When he also takes an interest in the senior detective George Lam (Simon Yam) and later attacks one of the female detectives in her home, he may be showing himself as a man with a completely different agenda. Without any clarity, all we can do is watch as George Lam slowly unpicks the past case and unravels the truth of what happened both twenty years ago and after Wong’s release from jail. There’s no way for us to feel any sense of injustice if Wong was wrongly convicted because of the way he’s shown as acting on release.
It’s also not clear why we’re given this particular backstory for George Lam. There’s a very deliberate parallelism to show him having lost his wife through suicide and bringing up a daughter of the same age as both the initial victim and Zoe (also played by Janice Man) the current daughter of the musical family. There are comparable tensions over dating. As an authoritarian father, Han Tsui warns his daughter against any fraternisation with the male sex. Lam’s daughter takes a boyfriend into her bedroom at home and tells her father to accept the reality of her coming of age. There’s no sign this set of coincidences creates any insights for the detective or in any way affects the relationship between the detective and the suspect. The only possible justification is as an excuse for making him more interested in cold cases. Just as he wants to prove his wife’s death was a murder rather than a suicide, he wants to spend time looking back at other old cases in the hope of finding injustice and correcting the record.
So there we have it. We can’t see this as a revenge story because, until near the end, we don’t know whether there’s actual cause for Wong to hate Han Tsui or his wife played by On-on Yu. Similarly, we can’t see it as a film about redemption because we don’t know what the past sins might be and therefore engage with the sinner as he or she struggles with the need to admit the error and make it right. All we can say is that, over the course of 108 minutes, we do eventually find out who did what to whom and why. I won’t spoil it for you. It’s a tragic story. But, to be honest, although I did end up understanding who the real victims were, Wong’s later behaviour is just irrational. Are we really supposed to think this set of experiences has caused a fine mind to engage in such a senseless endeavour? This leaves me with the following advice.
Nightfall is a puzzle film and, if you enjoy trying to put the pieces together, this will produce a not unpleasing experience for you. But what should have been a great emotional heart beating at the core of the film is missing. That’s a terrible shame. This could have been a really great film. Simon Yam and Nick Cheung are perfectly cast and, with the right script, we could have seen both men moving towards a satisfactory result for all involved. As it is, all we have is an ending with one note of hope — Simon Yam’s detective finally lets go of his wife’s case and accepts the possibility of a new relationship with one of the female detective in the team. Quite what his daughter will make of this is left unspoken.