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A popular 1980s TV theme song — with lyrics praising a code of honor based on valor and loyalty — anchors Benny Chan‘s latest action thriller. Sung and hummed at various points in the film, its meant to illustrate the long-running friendship of the three protagonists, as they bond, bicker and finally turn against each other.
Just as much as it shows the characters clinging to the vision of their good old days, the musical motif can also be seen as a signpost for Chan’s aesthetic nostalgia towards the classics of the past, as he merges his trademark high-octane action thriller tropes with the brotherhood-in-peril melodrama brought to the forefront by John Woo in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But if only The White Storm could match the emotional power of, say, Bullet in the Head, Woo’s 1990 hit, which like Chan’s film, is about three Hongkongers whose close and long-running friendship is torn asunder after a horrendous episode in Southeast Asia. The director might then have proven himself to be still top of his game with the film’s stunning car crashes, complicated gunfights and deafening explosions. But the three lead characters and their connections with each other remain too underwritten – a situation not helped by some of the bizarre behavior and incredible plot twists being foisted upon the protagonists.
Still, it’s a full-on cinematic spectacle, which should secure much box-office traction in Chan’s home city of Hong Kong (where the film premiered on Oct. 25 as the curtain-raiser of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival) and also in a mainland Chinese market very much receptive to cops-and-criminals blockbusters. The director will be looking to go one step beyond the $34.5 million take of his previous film, 2011’s Shaolin. Its genre roots will also allow for a certain presence in Asian-themed showcases, especially overseas, on the strength of its pedigree as the closing film of the Rome Film Festival on Nov. 17.
Chan has certainly made a good call in opting to ditch his latest action thriller’s original English-language title, The Cartel War. So it is that the story revolves around the attempts to decimate a narco-syndicate, but the slightly more ambiguous handle of The White Storm is more suitable for a film that is as much about the psychological maelstroms whirling within its three protagonists as they confront the guilt and angst welling up in them as their pursuit of the narco-warlord becomes a maddening journey towards failure and betrayal. (The film’s Chinese film title remains Sou Duk, or “The Drug Sweep.”)
Over the opening credits, a machine-gun montage provides something of a back story to the film’s three characters: Tin (Sean Lau) and Wai (Nick Cheung) are seen leading clean-up operations in drug-addled nightclubs, while undercover-cop Chow (Louis Koo) is depicted either peddling pills and powder to smacked-out revelers at dive bars around town, or discussing future big transactions with fellow hoodlums.
And it’s after this eye-popping sequence that the story proper begins: during a meeting of this triumvirate in an empty apartment, the viewer is asked to acknowledge the bond among them as they row about the present (with Chow complaining about being confused about his identity with a comic gag about the mind-boggling number of cellphones he has to carry around for different purposes) and muse over their shared past. The austerity of this scene is a delight: the simple, sometimes deadpan exchanges relay — thanks to the strength of the three actors’ performances –their personalities. Tin is the no-nonsense go-getter, Chow the jaded down-and-outer nearing a mental breakdown, and Wai the meek but obviously suppressed junior partner.
In a scenario that harks back to Infernal Affairs, Chow finds himself forced to endure seemingly endless purgatory in the underworld, as his two childhood friends (and current supervisors) coerce him to stay put in gangland so as to draw out the ever-bigger masterminds behind every drug deal. And it’s on this errand that the trio find themselves landing (separately) in Thailand, where Chow is supposed to try and lure the crazed Thai-Chinese drug kingpin “Eight-Faced Buddha” (played here with extravagant flourish by veteran Hong Kong character-actor Lo Hoi-pang) out of his hiding and into the hands of the law (with Tin and Wai’s Thai counterpart played by Vittaya Pansingram of God Only Forgives fame).
Tin’s arrogance and ambitions eventually lead the group into death and disarray, with the film’s first act ending with him pressed into making a choice, under gunpoint, that will change the dynamics in the triumvirate – and until here The White Storm retains a premise ripe for the exploration of shifting and scarred psyches. As the film’s second half picks up five years after that episode in Thailand, the personalities have changed: the reinstated Chow has become the police force’s ruthless rising-star and the crippled and demoted Tin is now the angst-stricken no-hoper, with their switched personalities brought into sharper focus by the return of Wai as a slick, confident avenger of Tin and Chow’s past misdeeds.
Chan has proven himself able in drawing nuanced performances from his stars — after all, it’s under his aegis that Aaron Kwok won Best Actor at the Golden Horse Awards with his turn as a disturbed detective in Divergence — and he seems to be on a winner here with the tip-top, malleable forms of Lau, Cheung and Koo (whom Chan also procured to remarkable effect in Connected, his 2008 remake of Cellular). And three flourish, particularly in the scenes that showcase the friendship, guilt and antagonism they feel for and against each other.
Sadly, The White Storm doesn’t exactly offer a full-formed and coherent narrative beyond the premise of plunging these characters into a moral abyss. In a situation that mirrors the illogical narrative that marred Chan’s previous contemporary-set drama, City Under Siege, the five-strong screenwriting team’s desire to instill a twist-heavy plot creates gaping holes instead – the biggest of which surrounds Wai’s reinvention. And the story abruptly falls back into the goodies-versus-baddies binary during the bombastic and excessive final shootout.
Compounded by the deployment of holdover clichés from days past — the relationship between Chow and his wife Chloe (Yuan Quan), for example, is wafer-thin and exists only as if to provide a hostage in the de rigueur rooftop standoff — Chan misses the opportunity for a film that could have, like Woo’s films two decades ago, provided a sharp choreography of both actions and emotions. As the on-screen tempest abates, The White Storm leaves a lot of ringing in the ears but too few pangs of the soul.
Opening Film, Hong Kong Asian Film Festival
Production Company: Sirius Pictures International, in a film presented by Universe Entertainment in association with Sun Entertainment Culture, Bona Film Group, Golala Investment, Sil-Metropole Organization
Director: Benny Chan
Cast: Sean Lau, Nick Cheung, Louis Koo, Lo Hoi-pang, Vittaya Pansingram, Yuan Quan
Producers: Daneil Lam, Alvin Lam, Wendy Wong, Stephen Lam, Benny Chan
Executive Producers: Chau Cheok-wah, Yu Dong, Song Dai
Screenwriters: Benny Chan, Manfred Wong, Ram Ling, Wong Chun, Tam Wai-ching
Director of Photography: Anthony Pun
Editor: Yau Chi-wai
Art Director: Chong Kwok-wing
Costume Designer: Joyce Chan
Music: Nicolas Errera
Sound Designers: Kinson Tsang, Yiu Chun-hin, Chow Yuk-lun
International Sales: Universe Films Distribution
In Cantonese, Mandarin, Thai and English
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