Thursday, July 30, 2009

Overheard (Qie Ting Feng Yun / 竊聽風雲)

What's the Latest, Bro?

Between filmmaker/storytellers Alan Mak and Felix Chong, they have unquestionably rejuvenated the Hong Kong Crime Thriller genre from Infernal Affairs to the recent Lady Cop & Papa Crook. I have enjoyed their film offerings to varying degrees, and so far haven't been terribly disappointed. Overheard continues this trend of enjoyment in soaking up their atmospheric pieces with believable, morally ambiguous characters, against a very contemporary backdrop dealing with almost every-day issues - nothing too far fetched that cannot happen, and without the need for gimmicky twists.

The key deal in the film is about information, and how it is King, and can be used as a tradable commodity from making money, to saving lives. Everyone has a price especially when you're in possession of vital, life-making or breaking, juicy insider news from stock tips to who's banging who, and Mak/Chong had imbued their characters with shades of grey rather than the usual boring black and white type, where on one hand you may not condone what they have done, and yet on the other, you would wonder if given the same set of circumstances whether you will succumb to temptation when the same opportunity presents itself.

Which of course leads us to the perennial question of who watches the watchmen. It is always easy to say, like the chief villain in the film (played by Michael Wong), that an organization is built upon honesty and integrity, but face it, it is a human face that's running the operations, and with human failings and trappings, there's the inherent potential that some hanky-panky could be done behind the scenes. Cases of corporate scandals overseas and locally would already be a case in point, and the story in Overheard pushes all the right buttons in gelling such material all together into one solid, edge of your seat movie.

Lau Cheng Wan (fan here, and good to see him back on the big screen!) plays Johnny, who heads an electronic eavesdropping, oops, I mean, surveillance team with buddies and direct reports Gene (Louis Koo) and Max (Daniel Wu). Together, the trio is responsible for bugging the office of a conglomerate suspected of insider trading and shady businesses. As the story goes, Gene and Max happen to exploit their newly gained knowledge for personal gain, and unfortunately as supervisor with a sympathetic heart, Johnny chooses to play along to protect his subordinates, rather than to bust them wide open to their superiors.

The film moves at breakneck speed, and it also managed to provide that little bit of detail toward the personal lives of the main characters. With Gene, his pressure comes from a critically ill son with insurmountable hospital bills to settle. Max on the other hand wants a personal fortune in order to stand up to his future wealthy father-in-law who looks down on him and his social stature. Johnny too is not squeaky clean morally too, as he's having affair with his best friend (Alex Fong) and colleague's wife Mandy (Zhang Jingchu). And in one key scene late in the film, we see how deeply corrupt he can be through the shift of blame, especially when required to save his own skin. So the stage is set for the devil to whisper inside their ears, to take the bait and go for the kill, participating in the insider trading and throwing away their moral authority as cops sworn to uphold the law.

Which of course means even bigger lies created to cover original fibs, and watching them sweat bucketloads each time things go awry, and they have to do deeper down into the rabbit hole. It made me recall a saying my old principal gave one day at the school assembly, that only the truth will set you free. In this case you'd wonder at which point the characters would decide to make a clean break and own up, and therein lies part of the fun in watching the film, getting equally frustrated with some of them as they go further down the slippery slope.

The casting is something that deserves a mention, as it's one of the chief ingredients in holding the movie together, and engaging the audience's attention throughout. Lau Cheng Wan is evergreen, and has so much charisma on screen, that he could have been just sweeping the road for all that matter, and still has this steely surety that with him at your side, nothing could go wrong. His big brother role to the other younger actors in Daniel Wu and Louis Koo spoke volumes as it got translated down to the story, playing the leader of the pack who decides to haul his flock out of trouble. And all three male leads were extremely believable as buddies who'd stick to one another through thick and thin, and in one scene where they were congregating in a flat when Mandy returns, was just about the best scene to demonstrate this camaraderie. The other scene which had me in chuckles, also related to Lau, was that stock market scene. Lau had propelled too fame through an old television series about stock broking as well, and I thought that was a scene with a well placed insider homage to his roots.

Cinematography was excellent as well, with Hong Kong put under the romantic spotlight at times, and one of my favourites involved a montage sequence which Mak/Chong used to perfection in showing the drudgery, monotony and cyclic fashion of a round the clock surveillance, with fatigue and shift changes all rolled nicely into one. Some may take offense at the way the film ended, but I thought it was quiet poetic justice, and almost brought a tear in my eye considering how the villains will stop at nothing, not even if you're a cop, at ensuring those who take an illegal cut of their ill gotten gains, will get dished some just desserts.

While I would have placed this under the highly recommended watch list, by virtue of this film being badly butchered at one point would mean that I would advise, if you prefer your movies uncut, to wait for the DVD, which of course has the additional bonus of the original Cantonese language track as well. And this theatrical presentation here is just another case in point that for the same PG rating, scenes of gore are more tolerated than a make out session in the office. Go figure.

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