'Integrity' ('Lin jing fung wan yin mok'): Film Review

Courtesy of Emperor Motion Pictures
Lau Ching-wan and Karena Lam in 'Integrity.'
Not every movie needs a twist, folks.

'Infernal Affairs' co-director Alan Mak reteams with leading man Lau Ching-wan for a contemporary financial corruption thriller.

Returning to the familiar landscape of corruption and shady business dealings, writer-director Alan Mak marries the quasi-procedural structure of Infernal Affairs (where he was co-director) and the currency of his most recent Overheard crime trilogy for Integrity, a mostly engaging, steely, ticking-clock financial thriller. Set in the once hallowed halls of the Independent Council Against Corruption (ICAC), Hong Kong’s beleaguered, one-time corruption watchdog vanguard, Mak walks that fine line between making his “bad” characters pay for their crimes as per Beijing’s wishes and narrative tension, mostly pulling it off until a late twist sends the whole thing off the rails.

In the way 2009’s Overheard tapped into the (then) burgeoning concern over security, privacy and the ability of government and big business to spy on us through our phones and Alexas, Integrity grounds its narrative in Bitcoin, international banking, cigarette smuggling and tax evasion. As a Lunar New Year release the film swims against the tide of bright, fluffy, comedic entertainments, and as such should prove an appealing bit of counter-programming over the holiday at home in Hong Kong, particularly with the ICAC playing damn-the-torpedoes, cowboy hero. In China the portrait of the ICAC as a flawed, overly-eager monolith shouldn’t ruffle any feathers, and the film is just slick and polished enough to giant a little traction with overseas urban audiences hoping for the next Infernal Affairs. This isn’t it, but it should partially fill the hole in the meantime.

The film starts with whistle-blowing accountant Jack Hui (Nick Cheung) chatting with ICAC inspector Chan King-cheung (Lau Ching-wan) in a swish hotel about the testimony he’s about to deliver. Hui dropped the dime on a trading firm that was dodging taxes and laundering money through black market cigarette sales (the explanation of which is as bloated as it is baffling, but we get the point) with help from a crooked customs agent, Chung Ka-ling (Anita Yuen). Chung looked the other way on inspection days, and in return was given stock tips that made her a small fortune, fast. It turns out Hui and Chan go way back — back to time in a hospital as kids, and that clumsily plays into the story later.

As expected, the skittish Hui manages to slip his ICAC guard detail and the clock sets for seven days: the length of time the ICAC has to re-present its star witness in court or have the charges against the dodgy company and its chairman, Chan Chiu-kwan, dropped. Knowing Hui fled to Sydney, another investigator, Shirley Kong (Karena Lam), goes after him. Kong is Chan’s soon-to-be ex-wife. Cue the retrograde gender politics at work (which Kong calls Chan out on) and after they have a spat: she ignores crucial phone calls and goes on a shopping spree during an active investigation and spends his money, because women, I guess? Lam deserves better.

Nonetheless, Mak juggles the various threads deftly, teasing out the mystery of who’s really the power behind the shell company, how far Hui can be trusted, and how much danger everyone is actually in. Where Lau’s cop character resisted the thieving of his partners in Overheard, he’s the one at the front of the rule-breaking line this time, and it’s his questionable ethics, as well as Lau’s innate gravitas, that power the film’s first two acts. Jake Pollock’s (Doze Niu's Monga) icy, gray-blue cinematography mimics the gray zones Chan navigates during the course of nipping corruption in the bud, giving the whole exercise a taut, whodunit tone that keeps viewers engaged. There are also plenty of niggling details that provide unintentional chuckles: the paper-pushing ICAC agents become embroiled in SWAT-worthy action, explosions and car chases; eight cops comfortably fit abroad in a standard apartment building elevator; the Australian cops are clearly American.

But those are minor infractions compared to the leaden B-plot involving Chan and Kong’s impending divorce, and worst of all a third act reveal pivoting on Chan and Hui’s shared history that rewrites most of the action and undermines all that came before. At many points along the way Integrity feels like the beginning of a new trilogy (poster art indicates a subtitle of sorts meaning “smoke screen”), and as such the final twist could be the set-up to the next chapter. However, sequel or no, that twist is shoehorned in so awkwardly it feels disconnected from the rest of the story Mak built so meticulously for 90 minutes. He abandons it utterly; wrapping up without addressing the core case. If this is supposed to stoke anticipation, it fails, inspiring only frustration.

Integrity resembles last year’s Project Gutenberg (directed by Mak’s writing partner on the Overheard films, Felix Chong) more closely than Mak’s earlier work, largely due to the overstuffed screenplay and last act “shocks” that add little to the story beyond dross. It would be much, much more agonizing if Mak didn’t have a strong cast to almost sell it, including Lam in the thankless role of “wife” and veteran Alex Fong as ICAC chief Ma, as the requisite “Hand me your badge!” boss. Tech specs across the board are sharp, including de-aging CGI for Chan and Hui’s flashbacks.

Production company: Pop Movies

Cast: Lau Ching-wan, Nick Cheung, Karena Lam, Alex Fong, Anita Yuen, Deep Ng, Carlos Chan

Director: Alan Mak

Screenwriter: Alan Mak

Producer: Felix Choi, Ronald Wong

Executive producer: Qi Tan, Yiqi Chen, Albert Yeung

Director of photography: Jake Pollock

Production designer: Eric Lam

Costume designer: Vann Kwok

Editor: Curran Pang

Music: Anthony Chue

World sales: Emperor Motion Pictures

 

In Cantonese

No rating, 114 minutes