First time director Yau Nai-Hoi's Eye in the Sky gets the two thumbs up from me. It's an excellent movie with a strong storyline that gets zoned into the moment, with no room spent on unnecessarily bloating the movie beyond what it should be. Director Yau, a frequent collaborator and scriptwriter for Johnny To classics, brings to Eye in the Sky, a taut 90 minutes cop-robbers story on surveillance, of the men and women who do the thankless anonymous tasks behind the scenes on following suspects and trawling the streets for them.
Surveillance is never easy, and trust me I know, from work experience. While there are countless of CCTV cameras and various technologies, nothing beats having up to date field intelligence. The opening film of the HKIFF, I had hoped to have watched this on its first screening, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I had one week to trawl the streets of Hong Kong and Kowloon, and being able to identify the locales used, was an added thrill.
Although this is a cop thriller, it doesn't have the usual car chases, explosions or fancy gun battles. It's quite muted in these aspects, however it brings about a refreshing realism to the story, a great departure from the days when action has to be stylized (flying through the air shooting two guns anyone?) The way the surveillance team operate, with its arsenal of disguises, tricks and vehicles, and the skills that one must possess - keen observation, alertness and an elephant memory, makes it like a cross between The Recruit and Mission: Impossible.
Eye in the Sky tells the story of a new recruit, nicknamed Piggy (Kate Tsui) by her mentor Dog-Head (Simon Yam), as she undergoes an on-job training of sorts in their case to track down some armed heist robbers, led by "Hollow Man" (Tony Leung Kar Fai). It becomes a tight cat and mouse game as identities are attempted to be established, and the team comes up against a villain who's truly aware of his environment, turning the tables as the hunter might become the prey.
There are strong performances all round, led by the veterans Simon Yam, in a change of alignment given his outings last year as villains, and Tony Leung, as a chillingly observant, cool and methodical sudoku-playing mastermind, who brought about the flip side of surveillance - of criminals studying and casing their targets. In her first movie role, I thought Kate Tsui did remarkably well in her role as Piggy, the newbie lacking field experience, yet being thrown in the deep end of the pool to sink or swim. Perhaps it is truly her being new to the scene, that eased her comfortably into a role which is similar to herself, but the story does allow her room to showcase some of her acting chops, and she holds her own well against the veterans. Maggie Siu too added some comedic moments as a foul mouthed police madam.
Eye in the Sky is a recommended Hong Kong cop thriller (time to let go of mole stories) which is tight, and keeps you on the edge of your seat as you follow the surveillance team through high angles (akin to CCTV camera angles), tight teamwork and features an incredible soundtrack as well to keep it fast paced. You must watch this when it makes it to our shores in Singapore, tentatively scheduled for mid April.
Director Yau Nai-Hoi and actress Kate Tsui were present to grace the second screening of the movie. Going by the positive vibes amongst the audience, the first question asked was whether there was going to be a sequel, to which Yau said there is no such plans yet.
He shared that the moving tram sequence was in particular quite bothersome to shoot, as it was moving, and to need a second shot with the same background, they had to wait for the next trip, so as not to have any continuity issues. The tram is narrow as well, thus it was difficult to squeeze all the equipment into it, and besides, renting the tram was expensive. (As you watch this scene, and have been in a HK tram, you know how tough it is).
There was a question that the jewel shop in the first heist scene doesn't sell real jewels, but Yau mentioned that it does sell pretty expensive items nonetheless. Also, no goldsmith shops in Hong Kong will allow you to film something like that in their premises. As to why the central district was chosen as the setting, he shared that it was very beautiful, and full of character. The locale also provided plenty of levels, staircases and slopes, with narrow paths and crowded streets.
The original protagonist in the movie was actually male, but he thought that an innocent girl up against a seasoned beast-like villain would be more intriguing and make better contrast. Hence having a female character, and a relative newcomer like Kate, suits the film well. Kate added that this was her first feature film, and she admired Yau's courage in casting and trusting her with the role. They took a year to make the film, and she liked this film very much.
Yau also explained about a key melodramatic scene, and said that coincidences, miracles and accidents do happen in real life, that you often hear in the news about mishaps, and wonder how the victims manage to survive almost impossible odds. That scene is done as such so as to jolt the audience into thinking about such incidents.
Yau, in response to questions about Johnny To, continued to say that the market for films has not been that good, and when people are willing to invest, and with Johnny To as producer, there is no need to think much about it, and just go ahead and make the movie. As a first time director, he too had continued with scriptwriting duties, and thus it gave him a larger sense of satisfaction to see the overwhelming positive response this movie has gotten so far. He had known Johnny To for a long time, and it's become a Milkyway (the film company) style of collaboration, and cross influencing each other.
Lastly, when asked about why he stuck to the conventional, almost cliche use of old Chinese buildings and warehouses as a scene of refuge, and whether it was because they ran out of budget, Yau replied that with older buildings, there was less CCTV cameras and a lower level of security, so it was quite logical to see these buildings used by fugitives. Besides, there was a news report some time ago that real villains were actually apprehended from these locations!