Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cold War (寒战 / Han Zhan)

I Am The Law!

Touted as this year's Infernal Affairs, Cold War has sets its sights really high to try and emulate the success one of the definitive Hong Kong crime thrillers of the last decade, but this rookie effort by writers-directors Lok Man Leung and Sunny Luk, while it had all the ingredients of a taut cat and mouse game, somehow fell through when its supporting cast didn't get the opportunity to build around the universe created, relying very much on the star powers of Aaron Kwok and Tony Leung Ka Fai to carry the film throughout, and the directors' efforts in closing the loop in the last act actually fell short of potential.

Cold War can be broken into three parts over the course of the period when the Hong Kong Commissioner of Police (Michael Wong) is out of the city in Copenhagen on a business trip, leaving the police force in the hands of his deputies, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) and M.B. Lee (Tony Leung) and no clear succession plan in place. With the opening credits, you'd see the divisions and the rivalry drawn where loyalties amongst the force gets deeply divided, with Sean in charge of management, and Lee overseeing operations. Equal in rank but obviously differing in experience and skill sets, the events that come will pit each against the other, and provide that opportunity for them to show their rival just what they are made of, having to rely on their guile and street smarts to outmaneuver opponents, especially when there are whispers of a mole within the police.

And from the get go, we see Mongkok being bombed in a terrorist attack, before an EU squad mysteriously disappears from the police radar, together with five cops being held hostage for millions of dollars, threatening to blow this case wide open for the police, and become their PR nightmare. The safest city in the world is now under threat from forces and criminals unknown, and is now up to the highest echelons of the force to get their act together to crack the case, putting aside differences that have been festering for the longest time.

The first third of the film has an extremely political slant to it, where internal bickering, testing of loyalties, and the protection of fiefdoms in organizations rear their ugly head. Anyone working in any private or public sector organization will be able to see parallels that both Lok Man Leung and Sunny Luk had drawn upon to set their characters in, with supporting acts from Lam Ka-Tung, Chin Kar Lok, Andy On and even Charlie Yeung playing various department heads, being drawn into the deep divisions, where on one side, Lee takes over in brash fashion, only to come up against the more brooding, thinking Sean, the latter plotting a coup de tat to wrestle control and to instill some semblance of reason. After all, Lee has personal conflicts of interest and Sean is banging on that to relief the former of his position.

The second half becomes the Aaron Kwok show, with the police operations code named Cold War undergoing full swing, and the directors setting up plenty of action, with typical criminal-cop phone call conversations, and keeping things tight for the audience in wondering just who the perpetrators may be, in addition to rewarding everyone with a fairly realistic highway shootout scene. But the final act is where the prestige comes in, with the introduction of Aarif Lee as a fairly inexperienced ICAC officer who may have stumbled onto some secrets behind Cold War, and convinces his bosses to allow him to spearhead an investigations into the two deputy commissioners of police, turning the film into one investigative drama complete with red herrings and good old fashion police work.

If only that was expanded upon, instead of speeding it through, which was what some quarters were restless about that Mainland China may have influenced the outcome of the film in some way, given that the good guys have to come up on top as a requisite. It's most unfortunate that the final act turned out to be its weakest, since it's never about the destination, but the journey in getting there, and there's where the screenplay fell through with gaping lack of information, perhaps primed for expansion in a separate film altogether, and a flow that was rather choppy, as if glossing over details had severely knocked the wind out of what could have been a very strong finish.

But story aside, I felt that the perennial struggle between Scholar and Farmer was something that would be instantly identifiable with anyone in Singapore, where success with grades would guarantee being airdropped into a cushy job in any government organization. And clearly, Aaron Kwok's Sean Lau is one such scholar, promising and the youngest ever to be made deputy, and primed for the top job in what would be a railway ride to the top, barring any cock ups from this operation. This is clearly in contrast with one who rose through the ranks through sheer grit, determination and hard work in the case of M.B. Lee, being out there with operational experience with the men, versus someone brought into management and wielding presentation slides instead of risking his neck out there in the field. Debunking their respective stereotypes, is what made the characterization of both leading protagonists a joy to sit through and discover.

While we are largely aware of Tony Leung Ka Fai's versatility, and looking quite the bad ass with his bald and bearded look here, I felt Aaron Kwok has really matured and aged well like fine wine, and with it came loads of improvement in his acting chops as well, charismatic to a fault in his portrayal of Sean Lau as we get put through which side of the fence this chap is really sitting on. Despite big names like Lam Ka Tung, Chin Kar Lok, Andy On and Eddie Peng, all of them were severely underutilized, which is a pity given the ensemble, with the likes of Charlie Yeung to balance the testosterone level in what would be a stereotypical role of being the PR chief for the police. Look out for Andy Lau in his few minutes, where he really chewed up the scenery as the secretary of security, primed and ripe for an expanded role if a sequel does come true.

If only the ending wasn't so blatant as to leave it so open for a follow up film to be made, since it had left the door wide open to just how far the rot in the police force goes, despite being one of the safest cities in the world, that the organization tasked to keep the law and order gets bogged down by its own protocols, processes and power struggles. Still, as a first film effort, Cold War is still a very slick affair technical wise, with the leads propping the flimsy final act up on their shoulders with the promise of more. Recommended.

2 comments:

Ong Chi Hang said...

Just watched it today and I must say it's the best HK movie I ever watched.

Stefan S said...

Hi Chi Hang, I won't exactly call it the best HK movie, but it has its moments and I don't mind watching it again, although in Cantonese!

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