A follow-up to the hit film Shock Wave has been in the works pretty much since it premiered in the spring of 2017. Warmly received as a throw back to classic Hong Kong cop movies, that film starred Andy Lau as a bomb disposal expert who thwarts a terrorist scheme to blow up the Cross-Harbour Tunnel that connects Hong Kong Island to the Mainland at Kowloon. It matched tense shootouts and bomb diffusions with efficiently conveyed human tragedies and was the most successful, if not necessarily the best, of the four films director Herman Yau released in 2017. Shock Wave 2 was scheduled to be released last summer, but was pushed back to December in China and mid-February in Hong Kong. It agains stars Andy Lau as a bomb squad member, this time partnered with Lau Ching-wan (who seems to be credited with his English name, as “Sean Lau”, much more often these days, but I’ll stick to the old style, because I’m old). Andy’s a different bomb squad guy this time though: following Hong Kong tradition, this is a thematic sequel only, all the characters and such are new. Director Herman Yau returns, and adds to the original’s retro charm a convoluted allegory about protest, the police, and the former colony’s relation with Mainland China.
Early in the film, Andy Lau loses the lower part of his left leg in a bomb disposal accident. He works his way back into shape in a rigorous training montage, but despite the fact that he can still exceed all the physical requirements for field work, his bosses in the Hong Kong PD try to transfer him to a desk job in the PR department. They tell him they don’t want to something to happen on the job and have people yell at them for employing a disabled person. (I’m advised that this would likely violate the Americans with Disabilities Act were it to happen in the US.) Outraged at the disrespect, Andy quits the force and becomes increasingly radicalized, eventually joining a terrorist group called “Vendetta” who’s political program appears to amount to “Anger”.
Injured again in a Vendetta bombing, Andy loses his memory and is convinced by the cops, led by his ex-girlfriend in the counter-terrorism unit, that he was in fact merely undercover with the terrorists and never actually one of them. They send him back to infiltrate the group and stop their ultimate plan, which involves nuking the Hong Kong airport, a horrifying vision of which serves as the film’s prologue. Note here the rhyme with the first film: the Cross-Harbor Tunnel and the Airport being convenient ways of escaping Hong Kong, to the Mainland and to the wider world. The terrorists’ programs amount to severing Hong Kong’s connection with China (in the first film) and the rest of the world (in the second).
Herman Yau’s last film was White Storm 2, in which Andy Lau played a Bruce Wayne-type figure, vigilante-killing all the drug lords he could find in a reductio ad absurdum of the international drug war. Again Yau has Lau playing an often deeply unlikable character, an unusual turn for an actor who has been one of the most charming and reliable heroes in the cinema for the past 40 years. But he ultimately of course turns heroic: once the personal affronts and grievances from his character are stripped away, Andy’s essential nature, humane and selfless, comes forth. The argument is that people are essentially good, and that it’s only systemic abuses (discrimination in this case, but any number of things could be substituted) that pervert us into acts of outrageous violence.
But this in turn is complicated by the fact that Andy, post-memory loss, is not exactly reset to zero. In fact the police use a variety of means to plant memories within him, meant to bolster their assertion that he’s actually working for them. So perhaps this idea of our essential nature is itself a figment of the social structure, enforced by the government and its agents, the police. It’s hard to read the Hong Kong police in anything like a positive light after their actions in cracking down on a year of protest in the region, and Yau is nothing if not sophisticated in both his critique of the state and the limits of his own abilities to express that critique through popular cinema. The protester/terrorists in Shock Wave 2 have no ideology, their leader is fueled by, we learn, childhood bullying. Analogizing this to the students demonstrating in Hong Kong’s streets would be nothing less than insulting, though it would certainly endear the film to the Mainland censors.
Yau ultimately doesn’t allow us a way out of this conundrum, much as he didn’t in his late 90s gruesome crime films that were as much an indictment of the criminal justice system as they were the heinous crimes committed in films like The Untold Story or From the Queen to the Chief Executive. There are no easy answers with Herman Yau, but for awhile, in a movie told largely through chase sequences in which a 60 year old man sprints up, down, through, and around the streets of Hong Kong on a prosthetic leg, bookended by some of the largest explosions ever seen on film, he sets us adrift in an anchorless moral universe, where nothing makes much sense and we can’t tell the good guys from the bad, nor our good self from the bad. The only real solution may be to just blow it all up, but in as safe a way as possible.