Monday, October 30, 2006

Operation Undercover (Wo Hu)

"Wo Hu" literally translates to "Crouching Tiger" (yeah yeah, one half of that famous Chinese proverb/movie of the same title), which refers to hidden talents, agendas and the likes. In yet another Hong Kong triad movie produced by the infamous Wong Jing, Operation Undercover (the less stylish English title) tells the story of how Hong Kong's police sent a rumoured thousand undercover cops to infiltrate the triads at all levels, leading to numerous high profiled arrests of triad members.

But no, this story doesn't begin and end just like that. It's actually a misnomer of a plot device, and you're not going to see thousands of similar Tony Leung/Andy Lau characters invading the screen. In fact, this movie is anything but pitting mole against mole. While the story may seem to be familiar, with the theme of the discovery and realization of bad hats in any organization, and those whose hearts and intentions are pure, the delivery, although stylistically looking similar to Infernal Affairs with its strained blue hues, actually excelled, very much dependent on the ensemble cast.

It's great to see Miu Kiu Wai back on the big screen after a long hiatus. In fact, this film had a number of actors whom we haven't seen for a while. With Wai playing a police superintendent, the rest make up the triads. I haven't seen Julian Cheung take on a bad guy role before, even though his scheming character here is nothing to shout about. Regular insane character actor Francis Ng returns to his mould, although his performance here surpassed the recent Exiled and On the Edge. A welcome return is Jordan Chan, famed for his dynamic pairing with Ekin Cheng in the Young and Dangerous franchise, playing a hen-pecked and muddled gangster chief, and rounding up the triad organization at the top, is Eric Tsang, probably in a role we're so familiar with given his Infernal Affairs connection. Shawn Yue cameos too as an assassin with few words.

Given the slew of movies in the same genre, you might balk at this one, given the low level publicity muscle, and probable thoughts of it emulating Election or Infernal Affairs. But the filmmakers perhaps realized the inevitable comparisons, and have early in the movie, given subtle jibes at those other movies, as a reminder that hey, we're from the same genre, but we're not emulating anyone, although the themes and plots might be threading the same ground. It doesn't take the typical microscopic look at the life of undercovers, but adopts a macroscopic view instead. Suggestions were provided as to how undercover cops lead their lives, and how much license they are given to walk on the wrong side of the law. Sadly this potentially interesting aspect wasn't looked into much, and came more of an afterthought following a surprising revelation.

The usual scheming and double crossings surface rather fast and furious in the second half of the movie, and it's quite puzzling to wonder why a bit part mushy romance was thrown in to upset the pace. While the subplot might be used to gain some sympathy for the characters involved, it could have been a darker film should this aspect not be explored, and it's quite unnecessary at times. My guess would be actually for the actress to make some kind of debut performance and sharing the credits with a rather stellar cast. Or perhaps to highlight the point again that some gangsters do have hearts (of gold) as well.

The finale, if wrapped up earlier, could have made the movie feel more compact and satisfying. However, it chose to end abruptly, and leaving things so open, there is room for a possible sequel. I won't hold my breath for that to happen though.

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