Eye in the Sky

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Hong Kong International Film Festival

HONG KONG -- "Eye in the Sky" ("Gun Chong") meets somewhere between Johnnie To's "Breaking News" and any number of great cop/gangster thrillers Yau Nai-hoi has written for To and Milkyway Image in the last decade -- of which "The Mission," (rumored to be going down the Hollywood remake road), "Election," "Throwdown" and "PTU" are just a few. This is as stylish as anything Yau has written for To, if a little more ragged in keeping with the subject matter.

The film is likely to attract a reasonable amount of interest in Asia, if only for the pedigree and stars involved, and overseas in festivals since To's name will carry it a long way. While it's sure to make it into any To/Milkyway completist's DVD collection, the film isn't strong enough to move much beyond niche markets.

The story is a simple one. The police department's Surveillance Unit, led by Doghead (Yam) with some help from a computer-bound crew under Maggie Siu, welcomes a new recruit, Piggy (Tsui), just as a complex operation against jewel thieves begins. (Jewels maintain their place as Hong Kong criminals' favored high-end target). Piggy's young, and doesn't look like a cop, which to Doghead makes her a perfect tail. The operation begins when the SU connects local lay-about Fatman (Milkyway favorite Lam) with a robbery that went off in Hong Kong's business district in broad daylight. Fatman eventually leads the squad to the mastermind behind the operation, Shan (Leung), who enjoys a good game of Sodoku on the tram when he needs to plot out his plans.

The story focuses as much on procedure as it does on Piggy and her insertion into police work. As her mentor, Doghead is supportive and understanding, and Siu's boss is a reasonable one. But Piggy drops the ball on Shan -- referred to as Hollowman -- when she's forced to make an ethical choice, her first on the job, and questions her own capabilities. Thankfully, the script avoids cliche and she's never threatened with her job or thrown out of it on the spot. But anyone even remotely familiar with To & Co. will know that situation is going to come up again. Inevitably, it will be more personal.

The film's biggest flaw may be the glaring missed opportunity to make a larger comment on the omnipresence of general surveillance in the world at large. The film does forge a decent sense of paranoia by suggesting we're being watched at all times. Hollowman and Fatman have cops on them, but cameras are everywhere. Aerial scene transitions recall grainy CCTV images. The streets are crowded and chaotic: Anyone could be watching anyone else. Sadly, the script doesn't explore the voyeuristic nature of contemporary society much beyond that.

Cheung's frantic, hand-held cinematography goes a long way to creating the atmosphere in which the cops exist and work. Constant jarring cuts and quick pans across busy intersections give the impression that the audience is trying to find a target through a crowded field as well. And Yau does an excellent job of exploiting Hong Kong's winding streets, endless alleys and overwhelming numbers.

An opening sequence, which begins on one of the city's venerable jam-packed trams and ends with a wide shot of a pedestrian crossing that fills up as if floodgates were opened, smoothly establishes the mood and pace.

"Eye in the Sky" is similar in tone to much of Milkyway's material. This is a world where violence hovers just below the surface of decent society. When Shan has his orders on the first heist disobeyed, he flies off the handle in a flash, and then settles down just as quickly. There's the requisite raging gun battle, but Yau and Au veer off with an unexpected, upbeat finale.

If Yau was at all uncomfortable in his first turn behind the camera, it didn't show in the performances. Fortunately, he had a strong cast to work with including young Tsui that manages to create whole characters from the near archetypes that were written. Leung and Yam could do the cop/robber shtick with their eyes closed: Each has done it time and again, often for To. Leung brings a simmering, intense rage to the character while Yam, waddling around with an extra 20 pounds, goes against type to play Doghead as unglamorously workmanlike. Yau has crafted a decent enough film, but it lacks the cohesive polish of his mentor's best work.

EYE IN THE SKY
Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd.
Credits:

Director: Yau Nai-hoi
Writers: Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin-Yee
Producers: Johnnie To, Tsui Siuming
Executive producer: Stephen Ng
Director of photography: Cheung Tung Leung
Production designer: Raymond Chan
Music: Guy Zerafa
Costume designers: William Fung, Mabel Kwan
Editor: David Richardson
Cast:
Shan/Hollowman: Tony Leung Ka-Fai
Simon Yam: Wong/Doghead
Piggy: Kate Tsui
Fatman: Lam Suet
Maggie Siu
Running time -- 88 minutes
No MPAA rating

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