'Trivisa' ('Shu Dai Jiu Fung'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Media Asia Film International Limited
A topical and engaging debut.

The criminal thriller, produced by Johnnie To and helmed by a trio of young Hong Kong directors, bowed in the Berlin Film Festival’s Forum section.

With rookies like these, why wait for the old-timers? While still trying to finish his long-mooted omnibus featuring his fellow Hong Kong veteran auteurs, Johnnie To has ushered in a powerful debut from three first-time directors from the city instead. A fictional reinvention of the final hurrah of three of Hong Kong’s most notorious felons in the 1990s, Trivisa is an engaging, reflective and topical criminal thriller.

Hailing from the aptly-titled Fresh Wave new talent showcase which To initiated a decade ago, the young collective of Frank Hui, Jevons Au and Vicky Wong have delivered a pitch-black, noir-infused debut resembling their mentors’ fatalistic classics of yore. Taking its international title from the Buddhist notion of the "three poisons" leading to suffering — delusion, desire and fury — the directorial trio could claim to have produced a trilinear allegory about the source of their hometown’s fall from grace after its return to Chinese sovereignty.

Hot on the footsteps of the critically acclaimed political parable Ten Years — a portmanteau denounced twice by a state-run Chinese newspaper for spreading "viruses of the mind" — Trivisa should be able to stir some interest among its domestic audiences. These nuances may go over the heads of uninitiated international audiences, but they may still get something out of a very different thriller in which criminal kingpins wallow in hilarious existential crises as they try to strike out for something new.

While Ten Years attempts to offer a sharp and scary prophecy about how Hong Kong would look a decade from now, Trivisa goes the other way by reflecting on how the city began to succumb to mainland China’s willful rise from poor cousin to bullying big brother. Other representations of the real-life individuals inspiring Trivisa’s three leading characters have appeared in quite a few Hong Kong films before, mostly in trashy cops-and-robbers flicks with gunplay galore and massive body counts.

Not here, though, as the directors and their writers have fashioned some kind of a fictional existential career-crossroads of sorts for all three of the felons. Delusion is embodied in serial kidnapper Cheuk Tsz-keung (Jordan Chan), who grows bored of extracting billions from tycoons and dreams of sculpting a legacy with a more violent crime. Desire, meanwhile, is the flaw in Kwai Ching-hung (Lam Ka-tung), who exploits anyone, anytime as he tries to hatch a new heist while laying low. Making up the triumvirate is the notorious Kalashnikov-wielding Yip Kwok-foon (Richie Jen), whose seething fury grows as he puts downs arms and tries to reinvent himself as a trader of smuggled electric goods in China.

The time is spring 1997 — a backdrop brought to life through Jean Tsoi’s detailed period design — and it was a time when the then British-ruled Hong Kong could still brag about being economically superior to its mainland neighbor. And times are a-changing: Kwai hooks up with a pair of Chinese ruffians in a plot which will inevitably go awry; Yip’s pride takes a battering as he is taken advantage of and then humiliated by corrupted Chinese officials; and Cheuk’s self-absorbed search for Kwai and Yip will also end in his demise.

Filmed separately by the three directors, the narrative of the three leading characters are convincingly welded together by Allen Leung and David Richardson, two regular collaborators of Johnnie To’s. While quite a few of To’s hallmarks are present — tense standoffs in the night and the consequences of coincidences, for example — the three young directors have all offered variations in mise-en-scene, framing and acting. While Jen and Lam delivered, Chan’s comedic schtick has softened the absurd comedy Vicky Wong might have wanted his strand to be. Such unevenness aside, however, Trivisa remains an impressive calling card signaling brighter cinematic futures than the one set out for Hong Kong on screen here.

Production company: Milkyway Image
Cast: Lam Ka-tung, Richie Jen, Jordan Chan, Lam Suet
Director: Frank Hui, Jevons Au, Vicky Wong
Producers: Johnnie To, Yau Nai-hoi
Executive Producer: Peter Lam
Screenwriters: Loong Man-hong, Thomas Ng, Mak Tin-shu
Directors of photography: Zhang Ying, Ray Cheung, Rex Chan
Production designer: Jean Tsoi
Costume designer: Sukie Yip
Editors: Allen Leung, David Richardson
Music: Nigel Chan
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
International Sales: Media Asia Film Distribution
In Cantonese, Mandarin and Thai

No ratings; 97 minutes