'The Brink': Film Review | Busan 2017

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
Only comes to the brink of greatness.

Shawn Yue and Zhang Jin headline super-producers Soi Cheang and Paco Wong’s latest watery action caper.

It's hard to recall a Hong Kong cops and robbers thriller that used a raging typhoon as a set piece, so that's precisely where the final throwdown unfolds in The Brink. The force’s worst cop goes on a quest to destroy a gold-smuggling ring disguised as a fishing operation while miraculously avoiding internal affairs in director Jonathan Li’s water-logged and fitfully inspired debut. Making good use of the decaying and decrepit side of Hong Kong the tourism board prefer no one see, and naturally the weather, The Brink is clever and creative with its fisticuffs but lacking the propulsive plot machinations crime thrillers demand. The popular cast should give the pic legs at home in Asia, targeted overseas release is a distinct possibility and the genre material will make it a staple on the specialty circuit for the foreseeable future.

After a six-month suspension for causing the death of a suspect while resisting arrest (the guy wound up falling out a window), hotheaded and reckless but effective cop Cheng Sai Gau (Zhang Jin) is back on the job in pursuit of a gang of gold smugglers masquerading as fisherman. At the top of the food chain is Jiang Gui Cheng (Shawn Yue), the boss after usurping, quite gruesomely, Shui and his entitled son Sheng. Jiang is now keen on locating the big boss behind the gold operation, Kui (Japanese vet Yasuaki Kurata), who lives and works on a floating casino in untouchable international waters. Things take a more complicated turn for Sai Gau when his partner, A-de (Wu Yue, Paradox), is taken hostage by Jiang and his gang, forcing Sai Gau and his reluctant supervisor Chan (Gordon Lam, dependable as always) to — wait for it — step beyond normal procedure to rescue him.

Given the script was written by Li Chun Fei, who also penned the surprising Dog Bite Dog, The Brink is relatively rote stuff, essentially functioning like a video game: Some clever action eventually spills over into WTF territory stitched together with cut scenes detailing a caper that’s simultaneously thin and overcooked. A prisoner exchange (the in-custody Shui for A-de), for example, is contrived to the point of numbness, and is a prime example of the film's tendency to overthink a simple premise or run wild with cliche. As soon as A-de says he’s retiring to Europe you know he’s in danger; Kui is supposedly outside Hong Kong police jurisdiction, though background news in the film’s last moments reports a “Hong Kong arrest”; Chan is the desk-bound bureaucrat who jumps up and yells about rules to his unruly star detective. You know the type. It’s those little details that make or break a cop thriller, and those little details the writer and helmer of this one put only passing thought into. Director Li has clearly picked up solid tips from the likes of producer Soi Cheang (who directed Dog) and Alan Mak during his years as an AD, and he has a strong feel for composition, but he’s put more artistic weight on the film than it can bear and needs to accept pulpy entertainments like The Brink for what they are.

To be fair, the pic is guilty of being more misguided than inept. Zhang is a nimble actor entirely capable of stealing the show given the chance (as he did in SPL: A Time for Consequences and The Grandmaster, among others), making the film's biggest crime not exploiting him nearly as much as it could. Yue has conflated bored with ice-cold criminality, and both actors incongruously look like rock stars, with Yue giving us scruffy biker chic and Zhang going for the bleached-out bad one in a boy band look. There is no place for women in this world: Jiang has an explosives-happy girlfriend; Sai Gau is legal guardian to the daughter of the thug he killed; and neither of the actresses, Janice Man nor Cecilia So, have character names.

Some good action and moody, tangible visuals (by cinematographer Kenny Tse) make the most of the city’s greasy alleyways, neon-tinged crumbling buildings, lingering fishing culture and wet markets, which give the images character, and action director Li Chung Chi finds novel ways to use water bottles and fishing accessories. The rest of the tech specs are sharp.

Production company: Fei Fan Entertainment
Cast: Zhang Jin, Shawn Yue, Wu Yue, Gordon Lam, Janice Man, Yasuaki Kurata, Cecilia So, Kumer So, Derek Tsang
Director: Jonathan Li
Screenwriter: Li Chun Fai
Producer: Soi Cheang, Paco Wong
Executive producer: Alvin Chau, Alex Dong, Gong Yu, Seaman Yang, Chen Yiqi
Director of photography: Kenny Tse
Production designer: Li Tsz Fung
Costume designer: Chung Cho Ting
Editor: Pang Ching Hei
Music: Chung Chi Wing, Cheung Siu Hung
director: Li Chung Chi
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: Bravos Pictures

In Cantonese
100 minutes