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According to a title card at the end of The Mercury Factor, the market in adulterated food now is a bigger worldwide business than the illegal drug market. Whether or not that is true, this Italian film shot mainly in Hong Kong is an eye-opening and compelling look at a disturbing world problem. Although the film includes some cliches, it’s a well-acted thriller that could attract an American audience.
Matteo (played by the film’s director, Luca Barbareschi) is a world-weary professional who’s been involved in a lot of shady businesses over the years. Overseeing a new operation in Hong Kong, he meets an attractive restaurant owner, Xiwen (Jingchu Zhang), who specializes in natural foods because her son died after drinking a fruit juice laced with pesticide. On the evening when they meet, a close confederate of Matteo’s and two women are murdered. Matteo becomes a prime suspect, so he must evade the police as well as the mysterious criminals who are engaged in a deadly battle for control of a lucrative new market in cheap, impure food.
The film aims to be a love story as well as a thriller, though it is less successful in its romantic aspirations, despite the efforts of two very attractive actors. Veteran Barbareschi has a warm, grizzled masculinity, reminiscent of Bogart in Casablanca. The stunning Zhang has poise and plenty of spirit, and there’s unmistakable chemistry between these two damaged lovers who try to overcome their troubled histories and strike up a connection. But when Xiwen learns Matteo’s true identity, she seems to forgive him far too easily. The film might have had greater impact if Matteo had to work harder to regain her trust.
Nevertheless, the film builds considerable tension as Matteo tries to outsmart the conspirators who want to usurp his position. While some of the plot twists are predictable, there are a couple of surprises as the film moves toward an inevitable tragic conclusion. Barbareschi shines as an actor, but he also demonstrates impressive skill as a director. Especially notable is the vivid evocation of contemporary Hong Kong. Here, the director is aided by cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari and production designer Francesco Frigeri, who makes excellent use of the sleek corporate offices as well as the heroine’s more humble environs. The sappy musical score, however, distracts from the authenticity of the visual design.
Barbareschi has chosen to film most of the movie in English, no doubt in an effort to make the film more salable in the American market. Whether he will succeed in securing distribution remains to be seen. But the timely theme gives the movie an edge that makes it worth watching and pondering.
Cast: Luca Barbareschi, Jingchu Zhang, Carl Loong Ng, Frank Crudele, Branko Djuric, Alessandro Haber, Gary Lewis
Director-producer: Luca Barbareschi
Screenwriters: Francesco Arlanch, Luca Barbareschi, Anna Pavignano
Executive producers: Claudio Gaeta, Giulio Cestari
Director of photography: Arnaldo Catinari
Production designer: Francesco Frigeri
Costume Designer: Milena Canonero
Editor: Walter Fasano
Music: Marco Zurzolo
No rating, 111 minutes
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