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Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)

November 24, 2012 10 comments

Cold War or 寒戰 (2012) shows the film-making talents of Hong Kong at their strongest and weakest. Sadly, the weaker elements win out and, although this is a not unsuccessful film, it’s a clear failure. So what’s it about? Ah, now that’s a very good question and the primary cause of the failure. We have the screenwriting and directing credits shared between Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk. A partnership can work very well because it ensures the script appears on the screen in its most polished form. Often an independent director can take a different view of the script and make changes, sometimes for the better. In this case, the first half of the film bowls along with interest high. This is inherently exciting both in physical and political terms. A bomb goes off, diverting police resources and focusing attention on the district of Mongkok. During this time, a mobile response unit arrests a drunk driver who is probably a judge’s son. He has just written off a high-end car and has to be physically restrained. It’s never explained what happens to the arrested man nor what consequences flow from the incident. All we can say is that the five officers in the unit are later taken hostage and their van “disappears”. Since the judge’s son is not taken hostage, there must have been a handover to other police units but this is never mentioned or explained. This suggests the only reason for this action sequence is to allow Kim-ching Luk to demonstrate the experience he has developed as Second Unit Director on sixteen films including the recent Korean hit, The Thieves.

Tony Leung Ka Fai confronts his own demons

 

Anyway, once a ransom demand is made, the responsibility for the “incident” is seized by Waise Lee (Tony Leung Ka Fai). In the absence of the Commissioner who’s out of the country, he declares a state of emergency and mobilises all Hong Kong’s finest in an operation he code-names “Cold War”. This is actually a breach of operational guidelines because his son Joe K C Lee (Eddie Peng) is one of the five hostages. There’s supposed to be no emotional tie between the senior officer in charge and any significant person involved in an investigation. The next most senior officer, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) therefore organises the votes among the key senior officers to depose Lee and assume the responsibility as the next in line. This is the difference between Old and New School. Waise Lee represents the tradition of the police force. Although his father was a senior policeman, he started off on the streets as an ordinary officer and worked his way up on merit. Sean Lau is the new breed. He’s highly educated and has been fast-tracked up the management hierarchy as an effective administrator. This is the source of resentment from the Old School officers and although his style is very inclusive and has produced a more efficient force, there’s a faction that would prefer the street-smart Waise Lee to become the next Commissioner. Thus, during the initial stages of the film, we can see the investigation as a crystalisation of the fight over the future of the force. Should it become “professionalised” with outsiders parachuted in as senior officers based on generic management expertise, or should it retain the career path for any officer to get from the beat to the top on merit?

 

As the investigation proceeds, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) receives a tip-off from an unknown person in the police force. It alerts them to the fact this crime could not have been committed by an outsider. It requires specialist insider knowledge. The young Billy K.B. Cheung (Aarif Rahman) takes on the task of investigating, but quickly comes to focus on Waise Lee and Sean Lau. The alternative scenarios are that Waise Lee is masterminding the hostage drama to enhance his own reputation, or that Sean Lau is corrupt and doing it for the money. In due course, four of the five hostages are recovered, a senior officer dies in a shootout, and a big slice of the ransom money is taken. Billy Cheung interviews both officers but neither of them are impressed, calmly pointing out there’s absolutely no evidence of their involvement. It’s at this point that the film falls to pieces. Forensic evidence suggests several lines of inquiry, a car bomb kills the Treasury Officer who was responsible for signing out the ransom money. There’s a big police raid with lots of explosions and massive firepower from the SWAT team. The casualties are mounting. In the end, there’s some kind of explanation and an arrest is made but, to be honest, I’m still unclear about the motive. My gut tells me this was just a criminal who was in it for the money. Any other side effect was window-dressing used as a pretext to recruit the right people to make the whole thing work.

Aaron Kwok finding it can be tough when you take the responsibility

 

Frankly I despair of Hong Kong film-makers. They seem to favour lack of coherence as a virtue. All the majority do is cobble together a general idea to start themselves off and then think up justifications for fights and explosions. There’s little regard for credibility as one thing leads on to the next. Stuff happens until we get to the end and then there’s a vague explanation as if no-one in the cinema really cares what was going on so long as there were enough fights and explosions of increasingly destructive power. This is a tragedy. The initial set-up of the political infighting in the police has great potential but it’s completely wasted because, at the end, I have absolutely no idea why some officers were killed. What makes all this even more frustrating than usual is the propaganda asserting the Hong Kong justice system as the pinnacle of perfection, relying on the common law system, with the best police force in the world making the city a completely safe environment. This is after we’ve seen terrorist bombings, shootings and explosions. Hardly the best advertisement for a safe city. All the principal actors are excellent with Tony Leung Ka Fai and Aaron Kwok outstanding. As you watch, there’s a wealth of talent on display in what proves to be a very good ensemble performance. If only it had been in service to a credible plot, I would have been cheerleading from the front. As it is, I left the cinema deeply disappointed. The fact Cold War or 寒戰 is left with a cliffhanger showing the team expects to make a sequel is all the more dispiriting. It seems optimism is alive and well and living in Hong Kong.

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010) also featuring Aarif Rahman
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012) also featuring Eddie Peng
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012) also featuring Eddie Peng

 

Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)

November 25, 2010 4 comments

The camera moves slowly through the space, exploring the rooms as if it half remembers them. The furniture stands silently on a polished wooden floor. There are children’s toys. The tracking shot ends on the ancestors.

They give strength and a sense of permanence to the family. Through their hard work and perseverance, each new generation has grown and prospered. They watch over the living as they try to build on what has gone before.

This is a biopic. It therefore has to obey various rules. Whatever is seen on the screen must be explained by a voice over. Talking heads must appear. There must be captions to tell us when and where we are, to introduce us to characters we remember from history. And there must be actors who recreate the lives of these people through the years. There will be babies who become youngsters and then enter the dangerous years of their teens. Parents and grandparents will remind each other of filial duties, and hand down their culture to each new generation as it passes through the home. But make no mistake. This is not a biopic with the sensationalism of Hollywood behind it. This is a quietly confident “Chinese” film, respecting the lives of the people as shown on the screen — allowing them the chance to grow and tell their own stories.

Almost as soon as the camera has shown us the empty space and we have seen the birth of Bruce Lee in San Francisco (it’s good joke about the name — perhaps it’s true) everything that follows revolves around the home. It’s always full of people, the dark kitchen a hub of activity, the mahjong tiles clicking on the tables as the adults play. In this space, people are made and then tested when they go out into the world. Did the parents do the right things? Have the children learned how to survive?

Tony Leung Ka Fai and Aarif Rahman

The spirit of the era of transition from before the Japanese occupation to the end of the film when Bruce must leave Hong Kong, is beautifully caught through the role of the father. Here is a man who makes his living in traditional Chinese opera. At first his fame must force him into collaboration with the Japanese then, in the aftermath, he slowly spreads his time between theatre and screen, watching how younger people turn away from the old and begin sampling the novelty of rock n’ roll and the Western lifestyle it represents. Throughout, Tony Leung Ka Fai gives a beautifully nuanced performance, first as the young son in a house of women dominated by his mother, and then through his years as the head of the family. It’s as if he’s carrying the weight of duty and responsibility on his shoulders, but always willingly, never resentfully. At first, he persists in the tradition of opium but, when this exposes him to blackmail, he quits. All his sacrifices are for the good of the family. Christy Chung as his loving wife who gave up status to marry an “entertainer” is fiercely passionate when she needs to be, quietly loving the rest of the time. They are the bedrock of the new generation.

Christy Chung

When we reach Aarif Rahman as teenaged Bruce, we find someone going through his rite of passage into adulthood. This is the role that had to be right. You can’t have a biopic unless your stand-in can fill the shoes of the real man. Again, this is not a showy performance. There are moments of great stillness as you see him struggling, thinking about what kind of man he will become. He is fierce in defence of his friends, selfless to a fault, some might say. Yet even as a teen, the flame of ambition burns within him and, when finally harnessed in pursuit of real fighting skills, we see him become more grounded. There’s a telling moment when he explains why he wants to learn Wing Chun (from the Yip Man, no less). He is interested to see whether it offers practical skills. Working in the Hong Kong film industry, he has watched the early “kung fu” movies being made. He knows they are action dramas without substance. When he discovers Wing Chun is real, he learns physical responsibility.Aarif Rahman strikes a pose

The film is beautifully structured to build to a climax forcing Lee’s departure from Hong Kong. All the strands of early love, the friendship between boys growing up together, and the inherent dangers lurking just under the surface in Hong Kong in general and the New Territories in particular, are woven together to produce genuine drama. It may not be quite the history I thought I knew, but it’s terrific entertainment. Because the family stays calm no matter what is happening around it, potential script problems of melodrama and sentimentality have been avoided. There are some touching and tender moments and, at times, there’s an overlay of sadness. Children always disappoint their parents. Parents must always love their children, whatever they do. Perhaps it really is bad luck for a father to see his child leave the country. As must be the case, there is some fighting. But not as much as you might imagine. This is not about the Bruce Lee who strutted and fought his way across the screen through the 1970s. Here we see the seeds planted by his parents and nurtured by his family. They grow into a young man who fights for his own honour and for the soul of his friend.

This is a genuinely affecting family history. Whether this history is true does not matter. The people we see on the screen feel real and what they do matches our expectations. They live and it’s a pleasure to know them during our time together in the cinema. In every way, this is a perfect way to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Bruce Lee’s birth.

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

 

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