Felix Chong Man-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

Lady Cop and Papa Crook (大搜查之女)

lady cop and papa crook

Alan Mak and Felix Chong (Infernal Affairs trilogy) join forces again to create a true mystery that will have audiences wondering what the hell is going on in their film Lady Cop and Papa Crook. ‘Tis anyone’s guess because it doesn’t seem like the writing and directing team have a handle on it either. The movie sounds good in theory – so many do – but ultimately suffers from numerous inconsistencies and general dullness of character and plot.

The story pairs Sammi Cheng as lady cop Maureen Szeto and Eason Chan as papa crook John Fok. Maureen is a detective who, when she’s not taking down criminals, worries that she is frittering her life away with her artist boyfriend (Conroy Chan) of ten years. She crosses paths with John when she leads the investigation into his son’s kidnapping, which is complicated and/or caused by the fact that he runs an illegal diesel operation.

Mak and Chong wanted to explore the dramatic tension generated when cops and robbers are thrown together in a confined space, so Wikipedia tells me, and the story has potential to match their darker dramatic efforts, but with Cheng in the lead, the film could have also veered towards the comedic. Instead of settling on one or attempting a coherent balance, however, the filmmakers use all the tools in the box and send the movie’s tone ricocheting from one end to the other. In the space of five minutes, John’s associates commit a brutal murder that feels like something out of Election only for Maureen to crawl into the screen on all fours à la Love Undercover a few scenes later.

It’s hard to know what to take seriously, and it doesn’t help that the two leads don’t seem to be acting together. When Cheng and Chan share screen time, it’s as if they’re drawing from two different scripts, and both leave the scene looking a little helpless. Thankfully, the story avoids pairing the two characters in a romantic relationship, though both actors still lack chemistry with their onscreen partners.

Others try to fill in the gaps; Patrick Tam delivers a particularly juicy cameo as a competing triad boss, and Liu Kai-Chi also makes the most of his memorable role as a fiery member of John’s inner circle. But even as performers flare up individual scenes, the fire quickly fades, and the sum of their performances never adds to the tension and urgency of what should be a heart-pounding thriller.

Some might blame the film’s mediocrity on Mainland censors, which sliced six minutes from the original cut. I’m guessing this was due to a subplot involving the death of an officer’s wife and child, thus causing him to act in a vengeful and not entirely upstanding manner. Since I watched the director’s version and didn’t feel like sitting through the theatrical release, I don’t know how many holes were punctured in the plot. But we can probably agree that the censors don’t tend to improve on a film.

If the film does earn any points, it should be for featuring a relatively competent woman as a lead investigator of a major crime. Cheng still dips into her screwball comedy tricks bag and acts unprofessionally on several occasions, which the filmmakers decide to blame on female issues like pregnancy and a cheating boyfriend. (A fellow male officer asks, “You have shit for brains or PMS?”) However, Maureen is clever and gets the job done despite being a bit flighty. The movie also goes above and beyond, by Hong Kong standards, and features Michelle Lo in a visible supporting part as another member of the investigation. It’s too bad Michelle Ye, who plays John’s pregnant wife, doesn’t do much except get really emotional. Girl, I feel you.

“Hide and Seek” (捉迷藏) – theme song by Sammi Cheng:

Released: 2008
Prod: John Chong 莊澄
Dir: Alan Mak 麥兆輝; Felix Chong 莊文強
Writer: Alan Mak 麥兆輝; Felix Chong 莊文強
Cast: Sammi Cheng 鄭秀文; Eason Chan 陳奕迅; Gordon Cheung 張國立; Dong Yong 董勇; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Michelle Ye 葉璇; Kate Tsui 徐子珊; Wilfred Lau 劉浩龍; Conroy Chan 陳子聰; Patrick Tam 譚耀文; Kenny Wong 黃德斌; Buzz Chung 鍾紹圖; Stephanie Che 車婉婉; Jo Kuk 谷祖琳; Michelle Lo 盧覓雪; Richie Ren 任賢齊
Time: 97 min (91 min, Director’s Cut)
Lang: Cantonese, Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

The Silent War (聽風者)

the silent war

The Silent War promises a lot. It’s a period film beautifully wrapped in the earthy tones of 1949 China still suffering the birth pangs of nationhood. A blind piano tuner is recruited to help locate radio frequencies and listen in on encrypted messages being transmitted by the Kuomintang, and he is guided by Xuening, a capable and steely taskmaster. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhou Xun front the film while Alan Mak and Felix Chong, the duo responsible for the Infernal Affairs and Overheard trilogies, pen and direct.

Yet for all its creative assets, this movie never really gets off the ground as a spy thriller or a romance, both of which it tries to juggle. Based on the novel Plot Against by Mai Jia, the danger of the spy game is barely perceptible when translated to the screen. Much of the action is reduced to panning shots of Bing (Leung) twisting knobs and staring through milky lenses, a look of disquieted concentration etched into his face. When Xuening goes undercover and tries to suss out a KMT ringleader, there’s about as much suspense as an awkward game of mahjong, which is exactly how the scene unfolds. As far as heart-stopping action goes, the most exciting moment is unrelated to espionage and happens early on when a gang of thugs brandishing giant cleavers chase a philanderer through a music hall.

Part of the fault lies in the characterization of Bing, whose superhuman hearing abilities stand out but little else. The film limits him to a largely sedentary role and tries to compensate by putting him in sort of a romantic rectangle with Xuening, her superior (Wang Xuebing), and a Communist decoder with KMT ties (Mavis Fan). But so much is left not just unsaid but unemoted that the climax rings hollow. Added to that is Leung’s interpretation of his character, a somewhat testy grump. He opts for levity and, in an odd misstep for an actor who handles somber historical leading man roles with ease, plays Bing like a forlorn schoolboy. Zhou fares better as Xuening and delivers a more consistent performance. She and the film are strongest when she goes head to head with Wang, two top spooks engaging in conspiratorial whispers.

The Silent War is at least visually impressive, particularly when Bing tries to interpret a series of transmissions in order to deduce the identity of an elusive spyhead. The sequence has a ghostly quality that does a better job of heightening the mystery than the script. But for a film about sensitivity to sound, this one lacks a strong sound design. Except for a few deliberate scenes that emphasize Bing’s aural experience, his key moments are washed away by grandiose scoring. The music matches the overall tone of the story, but this wastes opportunities to focus on Bing and tease out his emotions. One could interpret that as a way of satisfying the censors; this is a Hong Kong film made for the Mainland market, so rousing nationalism is largely subdued save for a final red bang. Or it could be miscalculation, one of many that resulted in a more cohesive and stirring trailer than movie.

Mandarin track trailer:

Released: 2012
Prod: Ronald Wong 黃斌; Charley Zhuo 卓伍
Dir: Alan Mak 麥兆輝; Felix Chong 莊文強
Writer: Alan Mak 麥兆輝; Felix Chong 莊文強
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Zhou Xun 周迅; Wang Xuebing 王學兵; Mavis Fan 范曉萱; Dong Yong 董勇; Lam Wai 林威; Jacob Cheung 張之亮; Tan Lap-Man 單立文; Carrie Ng 吳家麗; Henry Fong 方平; Tang Qun 唐群; Cheung Hoi-Yin 張海燕
Time: 120 min
Lang: Cantonese/Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014