Control (Kong Zhi/Hung Tsai): Film Review

A fantastical, futuristic premise falls back on conventional action-thriller tropes before coming to an implausible end.

Hong Kong star Daniel Wu co-produces and stars in a thriller about an insurance salesman's battle of wits with an unseen villain.

With its swooping VFX views of a menacingly metallic metropolis and a desperate man kissing his lover goodbye before fleeing pursuing thugs down dank alleyways - all to the electronic beats of Dan the Automator and Andre Matthias - the opening sequence of director Kenneth Bi's latest film appears to have see the Hong Kong helmer leaving his past family dramas of Rice Rhapsody and The Drummer far behind and entered the world of sci-fi-tinged noir.

But despite its hyper-stylized mise-en-scene, amped up action scenes and multiple twists, Control's futuristic sheen fades quickly and its dark enigma drains away to be replaced by increasingly ordinary early 21st century crime involving ordinary, caricatured villains in the decidedly non sci-fi settings of warehouses and car parks.

This transformation from fantastical dystopia to everyday crime drama sums up Control. The potentially refreshing premise quickly reverts to conventional action-thriller mode. The film's final twist, which tries for a The Usual Suspects-style shock, flounders while still being careful to appease Chinese censors with a strict moral line.

Release in mainland China on Nov. 21, Control has failed to set the box office alight, earning just $6.2 million while audiences in its young demographic flock to Hollywood imports The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Gravity. With its screens now drastically cut ahead of the bow of star-studded Chinese-language action blockbuster The White Storm, Bi's film will probably have to look to Singapore and Malaysia, where it opens next month, for hopes of better returns. Surprisingly, a release date in Hong Kong – where a bulk of the film was shot and where its star Daniel Wu is well-known – has yet been confirmed.

Wu plays Mark, a hapless insurance salesman coerced into committing criminal acts by a voice barking down orders through his headset. The mysterious man, who somehow has commandeered the city's surveillance cameras, takes control of Mark's life and fashions him as a proxy for his dirty deals.

The film appears to be banking on Wu's on-screen charisma and proven box office drawing power but the star is actually undermined by a screenplay (which Bi adapted from an original story by Jack Messitt) which forces our protagonist to continually shift gears as he acquires one ally after another. First there's his high-school flame Jessica (Yao Chen), then private eye Moon (Feng Jiayi) and finally the fretting low-life Jeff (Halo Bojie). It's a case of the more the messier and the film's final big reveal struggles to explain why Mark and all his companions fit - or, to be exact, get themselves to fit - into the mysterious villain's grand scheme.

Control also suffers from a lack of development of its central character. Instead of the transformation from bumbling banality to accidental hero – seen in the similarly-themed films Collateral or Hong Kong's very own Connected – Wu's Mark remains the handsome, poised professional throughout, even after being tied up in a warehouse and receiving a nasty beating from thugs Tiger (Simon Yam) and Devil (Leon Dai).

Compared to previous films in which a goody-two-shoes character is forced to act like a felon - say, the way Jamie Foxx's cabbie grows into the role of a cold-blooded hitman in his confrontation with Javier Bardem's criminal kingpin in Collateral - Mark's "performance" as an experienced mobster while doing his controller's bidding is far too natural. Here, Bi is actually missing the opportunity to provide some darkm comic relief to the proceedings. But the absence of these small gestures sums up Control's unwieldy nature. Its high concept is never really fully realized with broad strokes that pay little heed to the nuances required by its complex plot.

Production Company: Diversion Pictures, in a presentation by Sil-Metropole, Huayi Brothers Media, Kbro Media, Celestial Pictures, Media Asia and Le Vision Pictures

Director: Kenneth Bi

Cast: Daniel Wu, Yao Chen, Leon Dai, Chao Bing, Hao Bojie, Wai Ying-hung, Simon Yam

Producers: Stephen Fung, Daniel Wu, Stephen Lam, Rosa Li

Executive Producers: Song Dai, Dennis Wang, Cai Mingzhong, Ross Pollock, Peter Lam, Zhang Zhao

Screenwriter: Kenneth Bi, based on the story "Remote Control" by Jack Messitt

Director of Photography: Roman Jakobi

Editors: Cheung Ka-fai, Kenneth Bi

Music: Dan the Automator, Andre Matthias

Art Designer: Alex Mok

Image and costume designer: Tina Lau

Action Choreographer: Chin Ka-lok

International Sales: Huayi Brothers

In Mandarin

90 minutes

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