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Nightfall (2012)

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.

George Lam (Simon Yam) looking for relationships

 

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.

Wong (Nick Cheung) a hard man behind bars

 

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.

On-on Yu and Janice Man trying to make sense of it all

 

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.

 

The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan or 证人 (2008)

The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan or 证人 shows Hong Kong at its best and worst. It’s directed and jointly written by Dante Lam, the other scriptwriting credit going to Ng Wai Ling. At its heart, there’s a simple story of a serious criminal who orders the kidnap of the prosecuting lawyer’s daughter and instructs her to destroy the DNA evidence that would lead to his conviction. Needless to say, this whole plot depends on the lawyer not disclosing the kidnap and being willing to go to jail for obstructing justice — a fate that would separate her from her daughter in any event.

 

Well, always start with a bang, so they say, and this film is no exception. There’s a police raid planned by Sergeant Tong Fei (Nicholas Tse) to arrest Cheung, a major criminal wanted for a number of crimes including robbery and murder. The team divides into three and each group is supposed to co-ordinate their entry into the premises to capture the target. Unfortunately Michael (Derek Kwok Jing-Hung), leading one of the teams is late in breaking through a door and there’s a shooting with Sun (Liu Kai-Chi) narrowly escaping serious injury. Nevertheless, they capture Cheung who’s almost immediately rescued from police custody. Tong and Sun take off in pursuit. There’s a bad crash at a traffic junction, disabling all three vehicles involved. The criminals see another vehicle parked by the kerb. It belongs to a prosecuting lawyer, Ann / Gao Min (Zhang Jingchu) who’s standing beside it arguing with her estranged husband on her mobile phone. With Ann knocked to the ground, her car is driven away. Tong emerges from the wreckage of his vehicle and starts shooting. The fusillade of shots brings this second getaway car crashing to a halt. When the boot is opened, Tong discovers he has accidentally shot a little girl. The criminals found her on the back seat when they took the car and stuffed her inside the boot as they drove away. Cheung is in a coma. He’s rearrested but, after three months, he’s fit to be tried.

Nicholas Tse and Liu Kai-Chi on the trial of the kidnapper

 

We now enter the parallel dimension of coincidence. The prosecuting lawyer was the one standing by the kerb as Cheung took her car. The decision of the Hong Kong prosecuting authorities to allow her to continue in the case is therefore bizzare. Prosecutors must be seen to be dispassionate, yet she has every reason to manufacture evidence to ensure the conviction of the man indirectly responsible for the death of her daughter. At one level this is a wholly unnecessary complication. A plot to kidnap the child of a prosecutor would stand just as well with someone unconnected with the case. Ah, but the scriptwriters have a darker game to play. Our hero, Sergeant Tong, never formally returned to work, spending the three months trying to come to terms with his guilt. One of the ways in which he has passed the time is in befriending the dead girl’s sister, Ling (Wong Suet-yin). Indeed, Tong is at the school watching over her (he’s not the titular beast stalker, you understand) when the kidnap occurs. He’s knocked unconscious and the kidnapper, Hung Jing (Nick Cheung Ka-Fai) escapes. Now Tong has the emotional burden of having killed one daughter and failed to protect the other.

Zhang Jingchu as Ann deciding how loyal she is as a prosecutor

 

Although he has not been the best of squad leaders, Tong has retained the loyalty of those in the team. Even Michael (his cousin) who messed up, forgives him and they all agree to help him find the girl without formally alerting the police about the kidnapping. We therefore have the mother who’s pressured to taint the DNA evidence that will convict the villain. Then there’s the kidnapper. He’s losing his sight and trying to look after his wife Li (Miao Pu) who’s been injured. She’s incapable of speech, bedridden, and wholly dependent on Hung Jing to care for her. Tong and Sun, his main man who was injured in the original chase and now carrying a permanent leg injury, are now on the job. With Michael’s help to tap Ann’s mobile phone, they identify the city block where the girl is probably hidden. It’s now reached an interesting point.

 

This is a story about guilt and how you deal with it. Here’s a mother who would never have lost her first daughter if she had not stopped the car to argue with her husband on the phone. Although the policeman “innocently” pulled the trigger, she’s the “but for” cause of her daughter’s death. She cannot sleep at nights, blaming herself. Here’s a cop who feels so guilty at the mess he presided over, it’s as much as he can do to stop himself from committing suicide. Amazingly, there’s no internal investigation into this catastrophic sequence of events. No-one seems to want to consider whether Tong should be tried for manslaughter or suffer any kind of penalty. He’s just left on his own for three months.

Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse fight for the gun

 

As to the kidnapper, Hung Jing, he’s also carrying a burden of guilt. In another completely unnecessary backstory, the scriptwriters decided that, if the other main characters are feeling guilty, Hung Jing should not be excused. I find this deeply annoying. In my own culture, this is everegging the pudding. It’s adding a contrivance in the form of a coincidence. Simply having him as a professional killer dragooned into a kidnapping would have been sufficient. Weighting him down with all this backstory is trying too hard to improve on an interconnected plot that’s already overly complex.

Dennis Kwok proving surprising loyal in helping out his cousin

 

As to the ending, the chase and fight goes on too long and, although the existing relationship between the policeman and the kidnapped girl does add a element, enabling him to encourage her and get results, it all drags with an overflow of self-pity from the two adult men involved. In the worst sense, it’s all terribly melodramatic and hammy.

 

So The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan or 证人 is good in part and, if you are inclined to take a benign view of an average Hong Kong thriller, it’s a not unenjoyable way of passing almost two hours.

 

For the record, Nick Cheung won the Best Actor in the Golden Horse Awards 2009 and the 15th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards and the 28th Hong King Film Awards. Liu Kai-Chi won the Best Supporting Actor in the 28th Hong King Film Awards.

 

Other films by Nicholas Tse:
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)
Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan (2011)

Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan (2011)

For some reason, the summer season is associated with big crowd-pleasing blockbusters. When the sun is beating down and there are so many distractions outdoors, the studios release the films they believe will pull the crowds. In many cases, their choices are really bad. It can just be that the particular script-writing committee and associated focus groups were particularly poorly co-ordinated so the plot emerges in a chaotic state. More often, it’s obvious the cast were only interested in taking the money and finishing as quickly as possible. Whatever the reason, the summer is often the graveyard of the studios’ hopes and expectations.

Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung finding humour in the moment

 

This year from Hollywood has been no exception. There have been some real stinkers. Looking in the other directions, there have been some good films from Europe and one or two excellent offerings from Hong Kong and China. Well, the mould has now been broken with the arrival of Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan from the remarkably prolific Jing Wong. This just goes to show that, whatever Hollywood can do, Hong Kong can beat if it puts its mind to it.

Huang Yi and Charlene Choi relegated to eye candy roles

 

Welcome to the wacky world of wuxia comedy. When this fires on all cylinders not only is the fighting superb, but the laughs flow as well. Treasure Inn is a classic example of how not to do it. I suppose the starting points for this pastiche were Dragon Inn or Long men kezhan (1967) and Dragon Inn or Sun lung moon hak chan (1992) which are wonderful straight fighting films set in a remote desert inn. So, as a modern director, you pick your targets carefully. This will have the Inn act as a haunt for criminals who auction off stolen goods to the highest bidders, making it a lure to all the best thieves who want the top return on their skills. In this instance, it’s all about a jade life-sized Goddess of Mercy. A gang of raiders hire a criminal mastermind to steal it for them and pass it on at the Inn. Standing in their way is an elite group of police agents led by Captain Iron (Kenny Ho). Also involved are Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung playing bottom-feeder officers, left to do household chores by their corrupt local officers. When they insert themselves into the investigation, they are accused of being the thieves and then make a break from jail thanks to the efforts of Fire Dragon Girl (Yi Huang) and Water Dragon Girl (Charlene Choi). Needless to say, this pairs off our “heroes” — you can tell this is love at first sight because of the red hearts that burst across the screen when their eyes meet. Yes, some of the humour is that primitive. The other element of romance is between Tong Da Wei as a doctor in love with Ling Long (Liu Yang), the lady who runs the Inn.

Liu Yang floats around showing she's in charge of the Inn

 

Perhaps it’s an age thing but, when I watch a film, I want it to make sense. I can understand why the corrupt local police would want to drive the innocent do-gooders away, but why they would stay in the face of this relentless abuse is unclear. What makes this a problem is that, when the murders and theft of the statue occur, they are fast to insert themselves into the investigation and obviously ambitious to be recruited into Captain Iron’s troop. Later, when accused of being the robbers, we have slapstick torture and then the rescue by the cross-dressing ladies. There’s no attempt at explanation of why one of the ladies should be locked up with our heroes, nor why the three should be sentenced to death without any kind of trial. I suppose we have to have the ladies readily agree to go to the Inn because that’s the way love works in these films. I could go on but you should understand that, except in the broadest of terms, there’s very little logic or consistency of characterisation at work in this film.

Tong Da Wei looking dangerous in a different film

 

I might have forgiven all this and accepted the one or two laugh-out-loud moments as compensation if the fighting had been any good. Sadly, we are into poor cutting to hide the lack of good fighting sequences. You can always tell you’re in trouble when the use of sound as a weapon is so heavily featured with red blades of doom being cast off the guitar strings while a lion’s roar comes back. Even the CGI storm that rages around and eventually destroys the Inn is embarrassingly bad.

 

It’s rare I emerge from the cinema unable to find a single redeeming feature. While accepting that humour often does not cross cultural boundaries, it’s possible this film is aimed at mainland Chinese markets and they will all fall about laughing from start to finish. Certainly, much of the humour is lower common denominator and basic — as in the usual argument about who such suck out the snake venom from one of our hero’s buttocks — so if cultural stereotypes are true, this will make a lot of money. Worse, there’s little passion in any of the three romances to distract us, and the fighting fails to deliver anything entertaining.

 

So even when Treasure Inn is scheduled on terrestrial television, think twice before spending time to watch it.

 

Other films by Nicholas Tse:
The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan (2008)
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)

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