'Z Storm' ('Z Fung Bo'): Film Review

Pegasus Motion Pictures
Unconvincing plot weighs down a film with the sole aim of praising the work of Hong Kong's sleaze-battling investigators.

David Lam's graft-buster drama pits investigators against corrupted officials and businessmen driving the listing of a government-backed hedge fund in Hong Kong.

For a film industry eager to revisit its glory days as a hub for high-octane thrillers, what's better than to coax a filmmaker from that bygone era to come out of retirement and return to duty? While ambitious in its scope and chock-a-block with the kinetic action scenes, David Lam's first film in 15 years was eventually cast asunder  by a screenplay nearly completely devoid of nuance or sensitivity to the complexity of real-life political chicanery or commercial crimes.

Z Storm should have been perfect fodder for Lam: its premise of a do-or-die struggle between graft-busters and high-powered fat cats reads like a repeat of what the director had once worked on in the past, whether in episodes of the officially-sanctioned television series from the early 1980s (some of which were shown recently at the Hong Kong International Film Festival to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption) and also his 1993 hit First Shot, an effective period drama about the work of corruption-cleansing cops in the early 1970s.

Indeed, Z Storm is motored by just as positive and uplifting a narrative as those offerings. The heroic struggle of valiant investigators against out-and-out villains could very well serve as a recruitment exercise for the graft-busting institution itself - something perhaps Lam and his screenwriter Wong Ho-wah, who also wrote First Shot, is not really wary of doing, given how the protagonists would spew lines about how the anti-corruption commission will always be where corruption is, or how Hong Kong will wither and die if it gives up its core values.

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Such sloganeering, however, is as ham-fisted a way to whip up the audience's emotions as is the way this story is told: in the end, Z Storm ends up more like a made-for-television film than a proper blockbuster made for the big screen. Unfortunately, the film pales in comparison to many of the cops-and-robbers thrillers which went before it and might score less with audiences in its hometown (where the film opened on June 19) or on mainland China (with a release there sometime in July). Viewers might also be suffering from an overkill of top-billing star Louis Koo: this is his 6th film in 2014, and in a character which is perhaps the least full-fleshed and artistically challenging of them all. A home video release elsewhere would secure some returns internationally.

Similar to some of the socio-political conspiracy thrillers being released in Hong Kong during the past two years - Cold War with its power struggle involving top-ranking police chiefs, Overheard 3 and its adaptation of real-life land-grabbing in the rural hinterlands - Z Storm is hell-bent in presenting a city as being under the sway of a dark, labyrinthine structure of power. Staring into this abyss here is anti-corruption investigator William Luk (Koo), as he embarks on what seems to be an open-and-shut case about corrupted cop Wong Man-bin (Gordon Lam, Koo's co-star in recent hit Overheard 3), who was grassed on by his wife about his unaccounted-for fortune, is filmed to be destroying evidence in a raid for evidence against the supposedly money-laundering accountant Law Tak-wing (Lo Hoi-pang, Life Without Principle).

But both Wong and Law are able to shake off their charges as witnesses and evidence perish - and their roles in a bigger scheme of things emerge as the pair become enforcer and auditor for tycoon Malcolm Wu (Michael Wong) and the hedge fund he's doing an IPO for. Making all this a matter of vast public interest is how that very listing would affect the billions of dollars the Hong Kong government is going to invest in it so as to foot expenditure for its anti-poverty initiatives; while battling his suspects, Luk and his investigators are also seen fighting against officials anxious about the political ramifications of the findings of their work, as they had to contend with just a six-day time window to prove the guilt of their quarry before the fund begins trading at the stock market.

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Despite how intricate this all sounds, Z Storm is actually much simpler than a summary of its premise might suggest. Too simple, in fact: with Lam and screenwriter Wong desperate to bring in as many dimensions and threads into the one-and-a-half-hour film as possible - allusions to real events are in near-tiring abundance throughout the film - they have conceded to many a logic-defying short cut in moving the story forward. If this film is true, woe betide those who give, receive or induce kickbacks: witnesses might die or evidence might perish, but one can always trust investigators to land a breakthrough through online search engines or cuddling underlings to turn against their masterminds.

With both the good guys and the baddies engage in unconvincing strategies in getting their way - getting just one femme fatale to blackmail people in a deal worth billions, for example, feels perhaps too much like dabbling with small change - Lam's filmbecomes episodic and emerges merely as an elementary-level purview of crime and corruption in the 21st century.

Venue: Public screening, Hong Kong

Production companies: Pegasus Motion Pictures, Sil-Metropole Organization

Cast: Louis Koo, Gordon Lam, Dada Chan, Michael Wong, Lo Hoi-pang

Director: David Lam

Screenwriter: Wong Ho-wah

Producers: John Chong, Ren Yue

Executive producer:

Director of photography: Tony Cheung

Art Director: Raymond Chan

Costume designer: Stephanie Wong

Editors: Kwong Chi-leung, Poon Hung

Music: Anthony Chue

North American distributor: Well Go USA

In Cantonese, Mandarin and English

No rating; 92 minutes

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