'Overheard 3' ('Sit Ting Fung Wan 3'/'Qie Ting Feng Yun 3'): Film Review

Overheard 3 Still - H 2014

Overheard 3 Still - H 2014

A sprawling narrative stretches an audacious and topical premise too thin.

'Infernal Affairs' director-writer duo Alan Mak and Felix Chong conclude their three-film wiretapping series with a thriller about a land-grabbing war among village chieftains in rural Hong Kong.

Overheard 3 is the latest entry in a recent wave of fiery, overtly political films gaining critical currency in Hong Kong. It builds on one of the city's most long-running and divisive issues -- that is, the birthright of a selected few to free parcels of land when most people are struggling to get on the first rung of the property ladder -- and features psychopathic villains based on the real-life rural ruffians championing this privilege. While audacious and topical enough, Alan Mak and Felix Chong's third and final installment on their wiretapping-themed series flounders on the cacophony of its overstuffed plot and its whimpering, underwritten characters. What began as a promising premise eventually morphs into a car-crash of thinly-sketched romances and familial relationships.

Just like Fruit Chan's metaphor-studded paranormal thriller The Midnight After -- in which a dozen survivors in an emptied, epidemic-hit Hong Kong is  taken as a battle-cry about the dying of the city's light -- Overheard 3 arrives in theaters afloat in a media frenzy. On June 7, two days after its opening day in Hong Kong, the film was screened in a special show aimed at raising funds for a political collective campaigning against the special rights enjoyed by the city's so-called indigenous villagers; more astonishingly, the derisively-portrayed chieftains have agreed to appear in a post-screening debate with the activists, an event which would certainly heighten interest in the film.

Given its overtly political edge and its social relevance, local viewers would most probably overlook Overheard 3's flaws and propel the film to blockbuster status. Well, the audiences across the border on mainland China have certainly done so: ever since the film's release May 29, the film's daily takings have been neck-to-neck with that of the 3D and premium-laced X-Men: Days of Future Past. The problem lies in whether Overheard 3 could sound out a similar reception beyond its domestic markets: with the film placing more focus on plotting and scheming around a challengingly complex issue and less on testosterone-fuelled violence, a festival run is perhaps more probable, with its start being its international bow as the New York Asian Film Festival's opener on June 27 before hitting the Dallas Asian Film Festival in July.

Perhaps aware of the intricacy of the issue and intrigue at hand, Mak and Chong begins Overheard 3 with first some on-screen text about the so-called "ding" rights, a policy granting a piece of land to every male adult hailing from the many so-called indigenous villages in Hong Kong. What the British colonialists deployed in the early 1970s to bring powerful rural clans onside has since become a money-raking tool for some of the unsavory and unscrupulous elements in these rural communities, as land-hoarders coax and coerce villagers to sell their tracts - sometimes at dirt-cheap prices -- and then merge the lots to become the site of a huge (and very profitable) gated complexes of lavishly-adorned villas.

An extreme scenario of this drives Overheard 3. With the Hong Kong government finally putting an end to the ding rights policy, the rustic realm's most powerful Luk family is concocting a plan to make a final splash by purchasing all the individual lots and constructing a mini-city of luxurious skyscrapers bang in the middle of the countryside. While the mastermind is the shady, self-styled helmsman Uncle To (Kenneth Tsang) -- who deals and wheels through a company he is planning an IPO for -- his henchmen-nephews, led by the brash Keung (Sean Lau), would rather make it big with more brutal force and less subtlety, so much so that they would easily rid someone within the clan if he stands in the way.

In an opening sequence which nods at The Godfather and Johnnie To's Hong Kong underworld noirs, Uncle To is seen trying to convince mainland entrepreneur (and potential investor) Wan Shan (mainland Chinese actor Huang Lei) to inject nine-digit funds into their operation. While this tête-à-tête is taking place, a murder is in progress at the other side of town: Jau (Louis Koo), a childhood friend of Keung and all the younger Luks, is ordered to run down a Luk clan member to prevent him from selling his shares to property developers from outside the village.  

The story then picks up five years later, as Jau returns to the village, released after finishing a five-year sentence for manslaughter. While greeted by his buddies as a hero of sorts -- he also lost a leg in the pile-up which dispatched the dissident clansman - he also quickly realizes he's being held with suspicion and contempt, as revealed in the material he gleans from the all-angle surveillance of the young Luks' lives through an incredible system of hacked smartphones and secret cameras in their homes and cars. As it turns out, Jau has switched allegiances: he's now working with Yu (Michelle Ye), Uncle To's daughter who knows of Keung's plan to usurp her father's political power and economic might.

All this sets the scene for a possible high-octane battle of wits between the two factions over taut technological wars, akin to that fought in the high-finance arena in the previous two Overheard films. In a misguided turn, Mak and Chong have instead veered off to the construction of increasingly tangential relationships: for example, the unfolding of a past between Jau and Yu which involves the cliches of forbidden love and abortions, or Keung's heartfelt hopes of wooing Moon (Zhou Xun), the widow of the very cousin he asked Jau to dispense with. In a move which would ease in the cold chestnuts of the bizarre love triangle, Moon would take a shine on Joe (Daniel Wu), the nerdy tech-wiz helping Jau on his wiretapping operations.

Adding to all this is the double-dealings which would bring the whole house of Luks down -- the conflict between Uncle To and Yu, the betrayals among the young Luk brethren -- and as logic dissipates, the surge of violent demises (under a wave of bricks, in a multiple pile-up, amidst a deafening explosion) only becomes a buzz of white noise. Man Lim-chung's production design has helped enliven the proceedings, but the canny montages which help establish the tension of the first Overheard film is strangely absent - here, nothing much is internalized, because the characters are more caricatures and ciphers for a cause.

And one could even quibble about the cause itself: it's a film which every Hongkonger character is either morally flawed (as in the shape of all the Luks, Jau and Joe) or an ignoramus (cue the rabble-rousing or squealing of the ordinary villagers). The only good guy in the film, ironically, is the mainland Chinese tycoon Wan: after witnessing a character's atrocious act, he laments  how he had come to Hong Kong hoping to turn a new leaf -- but now discovers he couldn't, as he sinks into a universe of wrongdoing and crime. A concession to the film's status as a mainland Chinese-Hong Kong co-production, maybe? Now that Overheard's over, Mak and Chong - who remains two of Hong Kong's most insightful and socially-informed filmmakers -- might have to head to the drawing board and sound out something new.

Venue: Public screening, Hong Kong

Production Companies: PopMovies in a presentation from Bona Film Group, Sil-Metropole Organization, Youku Tudou and Star of Happiness

Cast: Sean Lau, Louis Koo, Daniel Wu, Zhou Xun, Michelle Ye

Director: Alan Mak, Felix Chong 

Screenwriter: Alan Mak, Felix Chong

Producers: Derek Yee, Ronald Wong

Executive Producers: Yu Dong, Chen Yiqi, Koo Wing-cheong

Director of Photography: Anthony Pun

Art Director: Man Lim-chung

Editor: Curran Pang

Music: Chan Kwong-wing

Action Director: Dion Lam

Sales: Distribution Workshop

In Cantonese and Mandarin

No rating; 131 minutes