Firestorm by Alan Yuen

Firestorm by Alan Yuen

Firestorm, the latest action thriller starring Andy Lau, is a character study trying to burst out of its commercial contraptions. The commercial aspects is a cops and robbers film with the volume turned up to eleven. Every moment is crucial. One can almost take the last frame of every shot, matte it and make a comic book out of the whole movie. The hidden arthouse aspects are the character study of its two leads and the morality play of right and wrong, which emanates later in the story. Director Alan Yuen keeps things moving along, artfully combining these two components in such a way that there’s never time for the audience to stop and think. For most of it, Firestorm is a fun ride.

Andy Lau leads the film sufficiently as the film’s righteous hero, but the heavy lifting comes with a cost. Senior Inspector Lui is mostly an action-oriented role. And he only gets interesting till the later portion when the Infernal Affairs-like morality play begins. It’s only then Lau holsters his gun and gets to chew some scenery.

It is great to see Gordon Lam, Hong Kong’s most versatile working character actor, finally play a lead role in a feature film. Out of the two leads, Lam has the more complex character. Andy Lau is billed as the lead on the poster, but the story is arguably more about Gordon Lam. He’s never given a bad performance and here he is the heart of the story. Yao Chen, who I thought would be a love interest for Andy Lau’s character (as it usually would), is the romantic love interest for Gordon Lam. I doubt a modern working woman in this day and age will tolerate a convict boyfriend to the level that she does, but Yao Chen brings a much-needed believability to the situation by reacting.

For what the film does for Gordon Lam, it falls short with veteran actors Hu Jun and Ray Lui, who are oddly undeveloped villains. This is not the way to use actors of their calibre; they deserve better. Michael Wong also has a cameo as Andy Lau’s boss. Does Wong treat Chinese film producers to dinner every week or has comprising photos of them? He tries to be subtle, which for him means trying to whisper his lines in a high-pitched voice as if he breathed vials of helium before each take. He is god awful as usual, but fortunately there is very little of him.

The action sequences are all entertaining and it is impressive how they are all set in in busy Hong Kong locales. There’s a sufficient amount of design going into the 3D for its action scenes; everybody uses tracer ammunition (which highlights the bullet trajectory) and there’s a noteworthy portion with birds. One particular high wire action set piece got too ridiculous. Let’s just say if I was dangling at a high altitude, I wouldn’t purposely slam the scaffolding that’s hoisting me. The finale shootout in Central’s Queen Street is the price of admission. Suffice to say, mayhem ensues. For any Airsoft fans out there, with all the Hong Kong police uniforms, SWAT gear, guns and muzzle flash that appears onscreen, this will be Disneyland for you.

To match its drama with an epic operatic grandeur, Firestorm‘s story is built around the metaphor of an oncoming typhoon blowing towards Hong Kong. As my creative writing teacher once said about one of my short stories, “Your pathetic fallacy is pathetic.” Sorry, it is too over-the-top at times. For example, Peter Kam’s bombastic operatic score is akin to a Final Fantasy game. It sounded like a choir of angels was chanting for Andy Lau’s survival through the gunfire. The work Peter Kam done on Isabella and Throwdown has shown subtlety and used music as a way to bring the audience into its world. I noticed that the quiet contemplative score sounded one octave away from the Infernal Affairs score. This is not Kam’s fault. I imagine this is the product of financiers citing references based on past box office success. Let’s face it, current Chinese and Hong Kong cinema is becoming a producer’s medium.

I was aware of how much commercial box ticking was going on throughout the film, but they were never overtly blatant enough to bother my enjoyment. Whenever Firestorm was being too loud and bashing my head, it was the hidden artsy choices, like Gordon Lam in a lead role, the undercover story arc with its morality play, which lifted it back up for me. It’s a fun time at the movies and if you’re going to see it, the 3D version will not disappoint.

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Drug War by Johnnie To

Drug War by Johnnie To

Police captain Zhang (played by Sun Honglei) partners with a drug lord named Timmy Choi (played by Louis Koo) after he is arrested. To avoid the death penalty, Choi agrees to reveal information about his partners who operate a cocaine ring. Zhang grows suspicious of Choi’s honesty as several police officers began a raid on the drug ring.

Drug War is a crime film made and released in Mainland China by a Hong Kong film company. Naturally there is going to be an element of political compromise. All the policemen are Mainland Chinese and all the drug dealers are from Hong Kong (Take a guess which side wins in the end). Nationalism in movies has never really bothered me unless it’s oozing with disgustingness (i.e. Michael Bay’s Armageddon). That is not the case here and I don’t have a problem with that. My interest is not the politics, but rather what Johnnie To will bring to drug film set in Mainland China. The answer? Not too much.

What’s missing from Drug War are the Johnnie To quirks. The zany off-the-wall characters who have speech impediments and odd ticks are gone. The dramatic noir lighting, minimalistic stage-like blocking or themes of brotherhood are gone. Even the gunplay is less stylized and presented in a realistic fashion. I don’t miss any of these specific quirks or tropes, but without the idiosyncratic Johnnie To stamp, what’s left is a very straightforward police procedural.

The characters are servicing the plot, which is odd for a Johnnie To film because usually it’s the other way round. We don’t get insight into the distinct personalities of the drug dealers or police officers and their relationships (like in Election, an ensemble piece where it manages to characterize the supporting characters). We don’t know if they have family members or girlfriends waiting for them at home or any backstory. The story is simply moving beat-by-beat linearly on the central question of how trustworthy Louis Koo’s drug lord character is. There’s nobody you’re supposed to be rooting for, but things are continually changing and you simply watch awaiting the final outcome.

To, a director and producer with his own production company, has always been best when he has free reign. The limits of To’s free reign authorship is that he is very culturally rooted to Hong Kong and possesses a firm voice regarding to its politics (Election), economic condition (Life Without Principle), daily life in Hong Kong (the office politics in Needing You), or even local nostalgia (Throwdown, Sparrow). As exemplified in 2008’s Vengeance, a project which was co-financed by French financiers and starred French rock singer Johnny Halliday, To’s directorial voice is weaker when he steps outside of his comfort zone. The three Hong Kong actors casted alongside Johnny Halliday to couch the star for two thirds of Vengeance mirrors the Milkyway regulars who show up as the seven Hong Kong drug bosses in Drug War’s denouement. It’s like he is trying to recalibrate the film by filling it with things he’s familiar with. However, there is no sense of To’s personal perspective on the topic of drug running, drug addiction, crime or how the police work in China through the film’s story, themes or characters. That makes a bit tame because To has fared much better in the past.

In context to Johnnie To’s back catalogue, Drug War will be remembered for pushing the boundaries with the Chinese Film Bureau. The Mainland police are shown working undercover and solving crimes, having gun battles with criminals and some even dying in the line of duty; these are all images that were previously not allowed to be shown in a Mainland theatrical release. Yet now we are seeing them onscreen. So that is a proper achievement that’s worth celebrating. The final product is probably more telling of Chinese film censorship than of To’s directorial sensibilities. But I can’t help but think that there is a grittier, nuttier version of Drug War lying in the corner of Johnnie To’s desk that is stamped “rejected”, namely the version of the story that he didn’t get to make.