Andrew Lau Wai-Keung

Confession of Pain (傷城)

confession of pain

Confession of Pain had the misfortune of arriving on the heels of the critically and commercially successful Infernal Affairs trilogy, released in the early 2000s, which recalibrated Hong Kong film standards for the new century. This film featured many of the same principals, including directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak and writers Mak and Felix Chong as well as star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. So it wouldn’t be overstating things to say that expectations were high, or that the result was a grand disappointment.

Granted, it’s hard to follow up on a hit series that went on to become an Oscar-winning adaptation directed by Martin Scorsese. Confession of Pain tries to one up the intense cat and mouse game that fueled the creators’ previous effort with another catch-me-if-you-can mystery. Unfortunately, it gets derailed by overambitious plotting. At its most basic, the film is a murder mystery. A wealthy man (Elliot Ngok) is bludgeoned to death along with his manservant (Vincent Wan). Inspector Lau (Leung) tries to solve the crime with the help of his ex-cop friend turned private investigator, Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and bring some closure for the victim’s daughter, Susan (Xu Jinglei), also his wife.

If the murder is unspectacular, the unraveling of this mystery certainly is not. The killer is revealed about twenty minutes into the film, and that’s when things get a little fancy. Instead of the traditional whodunit, the story keeps its audience guessing about motive. In this way, it trends towards a character study. There’s enough stillness in the storytelling and camerawork to allow viewers space to pick apart the murderer and why he or she committed the crime.

At least this is the idea. It’s an intriguing and novel twist to the genre, especially for filmmakers on the vanguard of popular art cinema. The trouble is that absent a motive, it’s hard to give any meaning to the performances. Leung is cool and detached as Lau, effortlessly flinty as an officer who doesn’t blink twice when dispensing justice on a rapist. Leung the charmer is also on display though through tender gestures towards his wife. The actor holds his character’s duality in one consistent performance, allowing a strain of malevolence to underline everything. This shiftiness isn’t confined to a single person, and Susan’s coldness towards her father, embodied by Xu’s chilling stares, also points towards a dark path down which everyone seems to be heading. There are a lot of places to hide one’s secrets. Bong is eager to dig around, but as a recovering alcoholic who blames himself for a personal tragedy, he does little to liven the mood.

Their individual behavior begs explanation and fails to crescendo towards more concrete characterizations. But the plot is structured so that too many hints about the murderer’s intentions would bring things to a hasty conclusion, for the movie and the killer. So until the big reveal snaps quickly into place at the end, things shift into a prolonged limbo. Appearances by Chapman To and Shu Qi are supposed to help, somehow. To plays another investigating officer and brings what he usually brings to a piece – comic relief and bluster, but Shu does precious little as a chipper beer girl and is about as welcome as a squawky clarinet. Her role in particular clashes with the story’s darkness – the title translates to “Hurt City.” On this account at least, the filmmakers succeed; the internal struggles of the characters find little relief in the landscape, their images juxtaposed against long shots of Hong Kong at dawn or midnight when the city is at its loneliest and most abandoned.

Released: 2006
Prod: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達
Dir: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Writer: Felix Chong 莊文強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武; Xu Jinglei 徐靜蕾; Shu Qi 舒淇; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Elliot Ngok 岳華; Vincent Wan 尹揚明; Emme Wong 黃伊汶; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥
Time: 110 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Women from Mars (當男人變成女人)

women from mars

Most Hong Kong movies that comment on gender roles and relations tend to offend my feminist sensibilities, to say nothing of the ones that purposely seize on sexist stereotypes. Women From Mars plays to expectations and does what such films do best – purport to share an enlightened opinion on gender and relationships while reaffirming traditional views in reality. You can almost always expect the man to get his comeuppance. It’s an attempt to show that the male writers, directors, and producers who populate the industry are forward thinking blokes who “get” women and who are self-aware of sexism in society and in their films. It seems, however, that the apologetic tone is more of an excuse to push sexist rubbish onto eager audiences than to atone for past wrongs. After all, this plot device keeps the focus on male character development and leaves women to be mere vehicles for which guys can discover and become their truer, better selves.

I had fleeting hopes that Women From Mars would at least be a humorous exercise with an ever slight potential of satire. A trio of insensitive, philandering men take the scary bus to hell only to win a reprieve and pop back up to earth, sans the family jewels. In order to win back them back, their girlfriends must sincerely declare their love within the month. Think Beauty and the Beast, but with graver consequences. However, the movie manages further insult by not being funny. Worse, it is fifty shades of dull.

Too much time is wasted on chatty exposition, which happens when bad ideas turn into movies. The three poorly drawn characters spend half an hour talking their way into revealing what jerks they are. Tom Kan (Ekin Cheng) is a celebrity hair stylist but spends more time trying to pick up girls than he does cutting hair. Bo (Cheung Tat-Ming), a pet store owner, is perhaps even more unsavory; he preys on women’s naturally sympathetic and gullible nature so that they will buy his animals. His cousin Michael (Michael Wong) at least has a steady girlfriend, Ruby (Ruby Wong), but he comes from some plot-device village where men take care of the thinking and decision-making and women can just shut their pie holes and cover them up with a face mask.

Their behavior is sleazy, aggravating, and juvenile, but sending them to hell to get their parts nipped seems drastic and somewhat pointless. These are not men particularly attuned to their misbehaviors to begin with, and some devilish tomfoolery does little to improve their powers of perception. Indeed, Tom, Bo, and Michael try to cheat their way into getting their ding-a-lings reattached and without giving serious thought to how they ended up in this predicament. The monotony of their pursuit is broken up by a spiteful, cross dressing radio DJ (Wayne Lai) and a station manager (Francis Ng). They appear a lot and don’t do anything important, their main purpose being to set up a big reveal.

A few gags help push the boys along the path to enlightenment but these better succeed in patronizing women. Without their pricks, the three find themselves increasingly prone to self-doubt, mood swings, and a fear of cockroaches. They curl up on a couch and lament their lack of literal and figurative balls. When they predictably get a real taste of womanhood, as defined by the writers, they at last recognize what an emotional and physical slog it is to be female.

The primary effect here is to show that the fairer sex are overly sensitive creatures. Better to have a real man who knows how to tend to their insecurities and needs. This stands in contrast to the girlfriends who, to the writers’ credit, come off as well adjusted adults, albeit with an unusually forgiving taste in partners. Ruby gets the most screentime and exhibits none of the stereotyped histrionics that the men (as women) do.

Still, there’s an air of exceptional tolerance. The film suggests that a few turns in a girls’ room queue and some sympathetic remarks about pregnancy can go a long way in helping guys understand how the other half lives. It’s tidy, reductive and only helps rein in the chauvinistic beasts in the movie world. It’s also bad entertainment.

Released: 2002
Prod: Manfred Wong 文雋; Frankie Ng 吳志雄
Dir: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Raymond Yip 葉偉民
Writer: Manfred Wong 文雋; Chau Ting 秋婷; Matt Chow 鄒凱光
Cast: Ekin Cheng 鄭伊健; Michael Wong 王敏德; Cheung Tat-Ming 張達明; Audrey Fang 方子璇; Louis Koo 古天樂; Ruby Wong 黃卓玲; Shu Qi 舒淇; Stephen Fung 馮德倫; Kristy Yeung 楊恭如; Pinky Cheung 張文慈; Francis Ng 吳鎮宇; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥; Qu Ying 瞿穎; Josie Ho 何超儀; Bobo Chan 陳文媛; Wilson Yip 葉偉信; Joe Ma 馬偉豪; Jerry Lamb 林曉峰; Roy Cheung 張耀揚; Michael Tse 謝天華; Amanda Lee 李蕙敏; Lam Tze-Chung 林子聰; Angela Tong 湯盈盈; Kingdom Yuen 苑瓊丹; Belinda Hamnett 韓君婷
Time: 92 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014