Punished: Film Review

A crime thriller where punishment is not dished out fairly enough to yield a satisfactory payoff.

Punished reflects the trend that “kidnapping” is fast replacing “moles” as the premier theme for Hong Kong crime thrillers

HONG KONG — A downbeat thriller with noir undertones, Punished smoothly but glumly chronicles how a kidnapping tailspins into death and doom. Parallels can be drawn with its producer Johnnie To’sVengeance and Park Chan Wook’sSympathy for Mr. Vengeance as a bereaved father goes on the rampage. However, director Law Wing Cheongfails is to elicit sufficient sympathy for him or anyone else. In spite of the title’s moral connotations (the Chinese title means “karma” or “divine retribution”), there is no justifiable payback for a protagonist who is a walking embodiment of hubris. This half-hearted exploration of conscience, aggravated by a pseudo-spiritual ending, will leave audiences rattled.

The film can still expect brisk business with ancillary distributors catering to Asian cineastes who’ll lap up anything bearing the manufacturing stamp of Milkyway Image, To’s production outfit.

Punishedreflects the trend that “kidnapping” is fast replacing “moles” as the premier theme for recent Hong Kong crime thrillers. However, Law’s version delivers slow-brewing meltdown as an alternative to the blazing outbursts of tension characteristic of such recent hits as Connectedand Beast Stalker. His concern is not with cause but effect. Hence, the captive is revealed to be dead from the onset, in an oppressively dark scene where protagonist Wong Ho-Chiu (Anthony Wong) watches the body of his daughter Daisy (Janice Man) being dug up.

Multiple flashbacks then reconstruct events before and after, resulting in an edgy fusion of explosive family drama and hardboiled violence. Wong is a ruthless tycoon and control-freak who materially indulges yet psychologically tyrannizes his family and employees. Only coke-junkie Daisy defies him. Thus, he’s informed of her abduction right after they had a row, he suspects she’s staged it.

Chor (Richie Ren), Wong’s bodyguard falls back on his triad roots to serve him. Even though the nature of his troubleshooting changes from sleuthing to enforcing Wong’s bloody vendetta, he exercises equally impersonal, merciless professionalism. Why Chor’s loyalty even overrides his own safety and ethics is a riddle that constitutes the film’s lack of credibility. His testy relationship with his teenage son is too sketchily represented to be a valid parallel for Cheung’s intimacy issues with Daisy.

It is obvious that Law strives to show how brutality and revenge backfire on the perpetrator. But Wong’s over-controlled and under-heated performance does not convey profound suffering or guilt. That he watches Chor maim or kill on his i-phone without dirtying his hands only reinforces his hypocrisy, and the dubious sense that the rich and powerful can get away with anything. Even a dramatic turning point toward the end of Fung Chih-chiang and Lam Fung’s screenplay doesn’t figure strongly enough as either self-awakening or atonement. Instead, he enjoys a cathartic, self-purifying experience at the end in a mystical scene by a Bolivian lake.

As wayward Daisy, Janice imbues the limited scenes she is in with firebrand intensity. As her conciliatory stepmother, Maggie Cheung maintains enough poise and a certain mystery that helps sustain the suspense.

Not only is really graphic violence banished off screen, conventional action film setups like car chases or high altitude acrobatics are kept to a minimum. Yet the film moves along briskly with an escalating sense of dread and calamity, thanks to the dark, moody score and the overall slick technical package.


Venue: Hong Kong Film Festival

Sales: Media Asia Distribution Ltd.

Production: Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd.

Cast: Anthony Wong, Richie Ren, Janice Man, Maggie Cheung, Lam Lee, Charlie Cho

Director: Law Wing Cheong

Screenwriters: Fung Chih-chiang, Lam Fung

Producer: Johnnie To

Executive producer: John Chong

Director of photography: Ko Chiu-lam

Production designer: Raymond Chan

Music: Guy Zerafa, Dave Klotz

Costume designer: Steven Tsang

Editors: David Richardson, Pang Ching-hei

No rating, 94 minutes