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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

 

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