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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)

Overheard or Sit yan fung wan (2009)

It’s always interesting when you start off a film with images of rats finding a living for themselves amidst the rubbish thrown out by unthinking humans. Even in the lowest levels of society, there’s still a possibility of a life with rich pickings. Having fixed the image in our minds, we switch to three officers planting surveillance equipment in the offices of Feng Hua International. Perhaps they too will act like bottom feeders should rich scraps come their way. Such are the metaphors that flash our way in the first minutes of Overheard or Sit yan fung wan (2009) a police procedural out of Hong Kong dealing with a Commercial Crime Bureau investigation into suspected insider trading. This is Alan Mak and Felix Chong continuing their team effort to write and direct after their success with the Infernal Affairs Trilogy and before The Lost Bladesman or Guan Yun Chang.

 

The identity of the “mastermind” is unknown to the Bureau at the outset, but later proves to be Will Ma (Michael Wong) who has “integrity” as his firm’s slogan. He’s a high-profile figurehead for a major charity and very respectable. He’s also laundering money for drug lords. No-one has ever been able to pin anything criminal on him. Because Kelvin Lee Kwong (Alex Fong) believes the best chance of collecting evidence against the lower-level conspirators is at night, the best three surveillance operatives are scheduled for the night shift. Yet each of the three has “issues”.

Lau Cheng Wan has eyes and ears everywhere

 

Inspector Johnny Leung (Lau Cheng Wan) leads the team of three and is best friends with Kelvin, his immediate boss. Unfortunately, he’s sleeping with Kelvin’s wife, Mandy Yam (Zhang Jingchu). They are unofficially separated. Kelvin had an affair, but hopes to patch up the marriage. This gets complicated when Kelvin asks Johnny to install surveillance equipment in the ex-matrimonial home to identify the suspected new lover. The other two members of the team are Gene Yeung (Louis Koo) and Max Lam (Daniel Wu). Gene’s son has cancer and he needs money to pay for life-saving treatment. Max is marrying into a rich family and his future father-in-law has the Police Commissioner as a golf buddy. Max doesn’t feel he fits in, particularly since his future father-in-law wants him to quit work as a police officer and work for him at a higher salary. Having his own money would make him feel more brave.

Lau Cheng Wan, Daniel Wu and Louis Koo test the extent of their mutual loyalty

 

When Gene picks up an inside tip on an expected rise in share price, he talks Max into deleting the record so they can cash in. Johnny works out what they plan but, when they plead with him, he steps back. Unfortunately, many in the office overhear the buy-order and they join in. This looks suspicious to the stock exchange regulator who suspends dealing in the shares. This leaves the actual insider dealers with a problem. They don’t know what went wrong with their own plan to inflate the price. They believe one of their number is welching on the deal and so decide to kill him. Our police officers are, of course, listening in. They intervene to prevent the murder. They are, after all, police officers. Then the exchange regulators take all the surveillance files, suspecting market manipulation by the Commercial Crime Bureau itself.

 

However, you look at it, this has boiled up into a nicely balanced situation. As a result of their purchases, Gene and Max have enough money to leave the country. Should they run, or should they stay and try to survive? The “bad guys” are also deeply suspicious. They need to clean house.

Zhang Jingchu and Lau Cheng Wan proving there's always a price to pay

 

At its heart, this is a story about personal and professional loyalty tested by greed. The three selected for the night watch have been through thick and thin together. Even though Johnny knows he should stop them from breaking their trust as police officers, he recognises their need for money. He thinks the situation is containable and looks the other way. Johnny is also conflicted in his relationship with Kelvin. Betrayal of his friend is eating away at him and he’s apprehensive at what Kelvin will do when he discovers the relationship with Mandy. When it all comes unglued, everyone’s relationships are under strain. Louis Koo and Daniel Wu do enough in their roles to engage our sympathies. Even though they are corrupt, their weakness in the face of such temptation is understandable. Who among us is so confident we would not also try to profit? However, the central role proves to be Johnny. Lau Cheng Wan does well in his role to keep everything in balance. He’s more honest and a better police officer than many of those around him. This does not mean he’s above breaking the law. In a good cause, he upholds his values as an officer no matter what it takes.

 

I’m less than convinced by the ending. It seems a feeble attempt to abandon the more honest approach in depicting the human failings of individuals and substitute a broader-based institutional corruption. I can understand that film-makers may be uncomfortable with the idea of allowing villains to escape punishment, but this ending does no favours to the Hong Kong police. There are far better ways of seeing justice done. That said, this is one of the better police procedurals to come out of Hong King in recent years and it’s worth your while to track down and watch Overheard or Sit yan fung wan.

 

For a review of the sequel, see Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2.

 

Other films featuring Lau Ching Wan:
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan
The Great Magician
Life Without Principle
Mad Detective or San taam (2007)
Overheard 2

 

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