Overheard -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- In "Overheard," three police surveillance officers on a corporate crime-busting mission cross the ethical line, triggering disastrous consequences. Screenwriters-directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong (whose detective trilogy "Infernal Affairs" was remade into Scorsese's "The Departed") take the shady concept of eavesdropping, plant it in Hong Kong's wheeling-and-dealing financial sector and set in motion a tightly-coiled, character-driven, morally ambiguous parable of crime and punishment.

The Hong Kong-China co-production hit pay-dirt, grossing about $11.7 million in 12 days on the mainland. The cat-and-mouse thriller is deeply cynical, yet slyly tows the line of China's censors by tacking on a certain rough justice. The cogent script and the hot topics of corporate chicanery and stock market frenzy should enable international crossover.

Protagonists Johnny (Sean Lau), Gene (Louis Koo) and Max (Daniel Wu) are cops, but their jobs at the Surveillance Unit (SU) make them resemble moles, if not peeping Toms. Assigned to monitor a company for suspected fraud and insider trading, Gene and Max overhear big shot Ringo Low tipping off his secretary on stock-rigging secrets.

They pounce on this chance to make a fast buck. Their supervisor Johnny, who weighs personal loyalties over professional duty, is coaxed into covering their tracks. When the trio taps into a conversation about CEO Willie Ma's (Michael Wong) order to take out Low, their values subtly but surely shade from black-and-white into gray, as they make moral compromises that snowball into more serious crimes.

Their behavior is part and parcel of the film's overview of a society where those with money or power are above the law, even its enforcers. The story ends not once, but twice, with triple twists, evoking an ambivalent sense of devastation and catharsis.

The film maintains a taut pace through its sensational but intriguing exposes on the ruthless games financial sharks play, and eye-opening demos of technical gizmos used by the SU to fight or commit crimes.

The discreet cinematography achieves penetrating depth-of-field when inside labyrinthine office space, or panning across windows in surveillance mode. Frequently, the camera swoops around to encircle Hong Kong's imposing high-rises, intensifying the protagonists' sense of being boxed in by a concrete prison. In tune with the story's emphasis on hearing, sound effects are suspenseful and simulate a quickening pulse rate.

Insightful characterization draws sympathetic responses to the protagonists' human if flawed behavior by revealing in casual gestures how their basically decent natures contain seeds of their downfall. Lau towers above everyone in a pitch-perfect performance. Wong amuses with his hammy turn as the nefarious tycoon whose hypocritical speeches parody fatuous business lingo.

Since minor characters also have crucial functions at every turning point, it produces ace ensemble acting. The only exceptions are female roles, which are completely sidelined.

Opened: July 24 China
Sales: Distribution Workshop
Production: Presented by Bona Entertainment, Sil-Metropole Organization, Shanghai EE-Media Co., Xi'an Qujian Film & TV Investment Group, Neo Studios, Pop Movies, produced by Film Unlimited
Cast: Sean Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo, Daniel Wu, Michael Wong, Zhang Jingchu, Alex Fong
Directors/screenwriters: Alan Mak, Felix Chong
Producers: Derek Yee, Henry Fong
Executive producers: Yu Dong, Song Dai
Director of photography: Anthony Pun
Production designer: Man Lim Chung
Music: Chan Kwong Wing
Costume designer: Vann Kwok
Editors: Kwong Chi-leung, Andy Chan Chi Wai
No rating, 97 minutes
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