Infernal Affairs II (2003) — June 29, 2017
Everything with Anthony Wong, Carina Lau, and Eric Tsang is excellent. And Francis Ng is pretty good too, though he seems to have time traveled two years into the future to steal Simon Yam’s Election performance. Chapman To and Roy Cheung do their things, and Kara Hui sneaks in a small role as well. But, surprisingly enough, Shawn Yue and Edison Chen are not Tony Leung and Andy Lau.
The plotting isn’t as tight as the first film, skipping ahead in time in montage a bit too much and I’m not really sure what further evidence Yue needs to convict Ng after literally watching him murder a cop, but it’s glossy and sad and brutal. The backstory it does add improves the first film, for the most part, especially Chen’s creepy relationship to Lau and Tseng.
Overheard (2009) — May 6, 2015
Soap opera dramatics grafted onto a surveillance procedural with Lau Ching-wan, Louis Koo ,and Daniel Wu as cops investigating insider trading. It’s a ripe subject for a genre film, but writer-directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong don’t seem all that interested in the financial misdeeds of 21st century capitalism or the effects of technology on police work or our everyday lives in general. This movie could have existed at any time, in any place. The actors are much better than the material, especially Michael Wong, always the worst even when he was a good guy back in the 80s, as the head villain. Expect the Unexpected mixes the personal drama stuff with the cop movie stuff much more effectively (as does Lifeline, but with firefighters), and Eye in the Sky and Trap Street capture the surveillance state better, the former with new visual approaches to an exciting police procedural narrative, the latter atmospherically with paranoid unease infecting what could otherwise have been a fairly conventional romance.
Overheard 2 (2011) — May 8, 2015
Rather than build on the surveillance aspect of the first film (you know, the thing that gives it its title), this one doubles down on the incomprehensible (to me at least) stock manipulations that served as the MacGuffin in the first go around. Louis Koo, Lau Ching-wan, and Daniel Wu are back again (playing different characters: this is a thematic series, not a trilogy), but are this time on opposing sides of a cat and mouse game, which means we lose the most affecting part of the first movie: the camaraderie among the three leading men. Instead, they move through the plot looking profoundly sad, except when something bad happens, then they look bewildered.
All of this, as in the first film, is in service of the idea that the latest economic catastrophe was the result of manipulations by a cabal of financiers. A conspiracy theory that serves only to reinforce the power of the state and its entrenched capitalist institutions, indicting a few bad apples as Triads and leaving the rest to pillage again and again. Though it is telling that the only moral good done in the film falls outside the bounds of the increasingly observant police state’s idea of legality.
Overheard 3 (2014) — May 29, 2015
The third in a series of thrillers from Hong Kong, directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong and starring the powerhouse trio of Lau Ching-wan, Louis Koo, and Daniel Wu. Each film follows a new set of characters in a crime story involving eavesdropping technology of some kind and nefarious financial transactions. Each one is overwritten, the kind of film in which characters speak in long monologues of exposition, explaining things to the audience that all the characters in the scene should already know. Each movie weaves a financial crime (insider trading, real estate fraud) into traditional cop melodrama (read: problems with the wife/girlfriend), lending well-trod territory the shiny patina of contemporary relevance. Each movie delights in maiming Louis Koo in some horrible way.
This is easily the worst entry in the series thus far, the plot overcomplicated (and not, as you’d expect, because Western audiences get confused by the nature of real estate deals in the New Territories, but rather just because the various schemes and revenge plots are far too complex to have ever been enacted by any actual humans), the characters thin and prone to radically irrational behavior. The first two managed to mitigate that with some clever suspense and action sequences, but there is hardly any of that here either. All of these people have done vastly superior work. It looks slick, like a lot of post-Infernal Affairs Hong Kong films (Mak was a co-director on that one as well), but it doesn’t have any depth, any soul.
Extraordinary Mission (2017) — June 25, 2017
Alan Mak and Felix Chong, two-thirds of the team behind the very good Infernal Affairs series and the prime movers of the mediocre-at-best Overheard Trilogy team up again for this routine actioner about an undercover cop working against high-powered heroin dealers. Like last year’s Operation Mekong, it’s a patriotic valorization of the PRC’s war against drug smuggling in the Golden Triangle, and like that film it features some impressive action sequences, notably a final street-to-street shootout-turned-car chase. Where that movie had some compelling, if cliched, men-on-a-mission group dynamics, this follows the undercover cop in too deep template. As the cop (Huang Xuan) gets forcibly addicted to morphine, almost exactly halfway through the running time, the film shifts focus to the main villain (Duan Yihong) and his backstory involving the head cop in charge (Zu Feng). Despite the actors’ charm, none of this naked plotifying and flash-backery is the least bit interesting, and a side story around the film’s lone woman is insultingly superficial. It’s increasingly apparent that the success of Infernal Affairs had more to do with pulp lunacy of co-director Andrew Lau than Mak and/or Chong.
Project Gutenberg (2018) — February 27, 2019
Increasingly tired of Felix Chong’s schtick: super-serious crime melodramas with little character and no humor, slick, superficial, glacially dull productions, Hong Kong elephant art. This one has a twist you can see coming a mile away, if only because nothing else in the movie makes the least bit of sense without it.
It’s fun to see Chow Yun-fat waving a pair of handguns around, but that kind of joy only gets you so far. And Chong is far too literal-minded to really relish it anyway.
But at least it isn’t as bad as the last couple of Overheard movies, I guess.
Integrity (2019) — February 18, 2019
Integrity is a Hong Kong police procedural from Alan Mak, the co-director of the Infernal Affairs (with Andrew Lau) and Overheard (with Felix Chong) series. Lau Ching-wan plays the overworked head of an ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) investigation of bribery and cigarette smuggling, with Nick Cheung as his star witness. Lau’s investigation takes an unexpected turn when Cheung gives him a USB stick full of evidence and then disappears to Australia. Granted a one week reprieve from the judge, Lau has a ticking clock in which to complete his investigation before the whole case falls apart. The conspiracy isn’t quite as complicated as it seems, and neither is Cheung that hard to find (Lau’s estranged wife, played by Karena Lam, tracks him down and works to persuade him to return). On the whole, it’s pretty standard conspiracy thriller stuff. Except every time you expect Mak to escalate to an action scene, the momentum just kind of dissipates. For example, a car chase is set up, with cop and bad guy in a parking garage, the origin of many a Hong Kong action sequence. But rather than spill out into the streets for some crazy spectacle, the chase stops before it ever leaves the garage.
In the film’s final third, things start to get really weird. The emphasis shifts from the crimes to the personalities and pasts of the main characters, drifting through one improbable flashback after another as the ostensible reason for the film, the procedure of prosecuting criminal activity, dissipates in a sea of unfulfilled dreams and obligations. It’s a resolutely sad and broken-down film, filled with haunted men and women. Lau is exceptional, as he usually is, and Cheung is fascinating as the cypher at the center of a story about failure and emptiness.