Cold War: Busan Film Review

2012-34 BKLOT Busan Cold War H

Hong Kong star Aaron Kwok (center) will be on hand for the opening-night gala presentation of the cop thriller "Cold War."

Excitingly paced if over-complicated Hong Kong police actioner raises some interesting political questions, too

The exciting Hong Kong actioner stars Tony Leung Ka-fai and Aaron Kwok as rival police commissioners.

BUSAN – When the main cop says “Cold War is a terrible title for this operation," one can’t help feeling first-time writer-directors Longman Leung and Sunny Luk winking at the audience in this bold actioner with piquant political undertones.  

GALLERY: Fall Movie Preview 2012: Major New Releases From Spielberg, Jackson, Tarantino, the Wachowskis, Burton and More

Hidden, and not too subtly, amid the excitingly paced chases, explosions and shoot-outs is commentary on Hong Kong’s status, laws and changing identity 15 years after the oft-mentioned handover to China. Though the political metaphor is potentially controversial for Chinese orthodoxy, it’s a winning combination that should get both the critics and mainstream Asian audiences behind the film, and a particularly savvy choice to open the Busan Film Festival.

The style is pure quicksilver procedural, with much undigested plot thrown at the viewer at the speed of a don’t-look-back videogame. The main players are two deputy HK police commissioners:  dapper hotshot Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok of Divergences) and hard-liner M.B. Lee (an unrecognizably aged Tony Leung Ka-fai of The Lover) who’s pushing retirement age. While the chief commissioner is out of the country, Lee has been appointed acting commissioner with all the enormous power it entails. Although both men want to work for the good of Hong Kong and the safety of its citizens, their conflicting perspectives explode over a serious crime that takes place in the opening scenes.

A bomb blasts through a crowded film theater. At almost the same time, an arrogant drunk driver speeds through the city’s freeways and totals his car. When a police van loaded with five cops arrives on the scene, it’s hi-jacked and vanishes from police radar. Despite all the expensive, sophisticated technology at their disposal, the police can’t find their own van. Lee’s son is among the kidnapped officers, raising concern he can’t act objectively. And so it seems:  he hotly declares a major state of alert and then harshly refuses to let his press officer (straight-talking actress Charlie Yeung) release info to the public. This breach of “the rules” causes his rival Lau to step in with a legal stratagem, political support from above, and some arm-twisting.

A brief glimpse of an officer using water torture on a suspect during interrogation at police HDQ passes as routine, but raises uncomfortable questions.  Yet in general, the HK police are portrayed as hyper-efficient and far less corrupt than in most American TV series. True, there is one bad apple in the barrel, a mole who is passing info to the criminals, but he will be caught and punished.

So there are no angels on either side, but most viewers will realize they are meant to side with the good-looking, ever-serious Lau, who is now in charge of “operation Cold War.” His mentor, the Secretary of Security for the Hong Kong Security Bureau (played by star Andy Lau in a brief cameo), gives him full powers, but  there’s something even above him – the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), established under British rule and Commonwealth laws. Their investigation into how the crisis was handled overrides everyone else. It’s put in the hands of a young, brilliant, maddeningly green hotshot (actor-singer Aarif Rahman) who arrests first Lau and then Lee before learning “the rules of the game.” This conflict between institutional powers becomes a running theme, even as the fast and furious action scenes continue.

In the role of Lau, Kwok projects wide-eyed earnestness, though he wins sympathy points for being constantly forced to make hard decisions, especially after a huge ransom is demanded for the missing cops. Whereas Tony Leung plays up Lee’s Marine sergeant style, like sending a SWAT team to storm a suspicious ship in the harbor, Kwok’s Lau foregoes the muscle and uses logic and deduction to outwit his mysterious opponents. Lau’s monotonous seriousness and Lee’s unflinching toughness both signal their integrity, however.

It can be said in the film’s favor that it is a rare example of genre in which the death of a minor character pulls the heartstrings, thanks to its being underplayed. It is an even rarer in characterizing people by the books they’re reading. This invention-within-convention bodes well for the future of tyro directors Leung (an award-winning production designer) and Luk (a well-known assistant director) both working under the guidance of veteran producer Bill Kong.

Their understanding of on-screen action keeps tension high scene after scene, blending confidently into character development and their reflections on Hong Kong’s balance of power. What doesn’t gel is the overly complicated plot that becomes an impossible challenge to untangle as the story progresses. A climactic scene involving fireworks exploding on the roof of a tall building is totally baffling and looks tacked on, though it is spectacularly shot.

D.P.s  Jason Kwan and Kenny Tse drain the color out of the cinematography, leaving only shades of gray, but their sweeping crane and aerial shots of nighttime Hong Kong and its neon-lit buildings are gorgeous and exciting. Action work is heart-stoppingly professional, pumped up by Peter Kam’s over-used score that sounds a bit like Bernard Hermann on steroids.

Venue: Busan Film Festival (opening film), Oct. 4, 2012

Production companies: Edko Film, Stars Shine Blue Sea Productions
Cast:  Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, Aarif Rahman, Charlie Yeung, Lam Ka-tung, Chin Ka-lok, Andy On, Terence Yin

Directors: Longman Leung, Sunny Luk
Screenwriters:  Longman Leung, Sunny Luk
Producers: William Kong, Matthew Tang, Ivy Ho, Catherine Kwan
Executive producers:  William Kong, Song Dai, Chiba Ryuhei
Director of photography: Jason Kwan, Kenny Tse
Production designer: Alex Mok
Costumes: Stephanie Wong
Editor: Kwong Chi-leung
Music: Peter Kam
Sales Agent: Edko Films
No rating, 102 minutes