Monday, August 13, 2007


RUNTIME: 98 min.
RATING: ****

The first thing that comes to my mind when I remember this gritty cop drama is the regret I felt during watching it, the regret on not having Mandarin as one of the languages I understood. I’m normally at peace with subtitles; I see a hell of lot of them. But this is a nail biting super-fast often too jammed up thriller that hardly gives you time to look down at the subtitles.
Released at a time when Hong Kong was supposedly reeling under a wave of unimaginative film-making, Mou Gaan Dou not only smashed the box office but developed a cult following of its own around the world. Nothing else is a bigger testament to the fact of the film’s success other than the singular fact that it spawned two sequels and a re-make helmed by none other than the great Martin Scorsese.
The plot, ah that is one thing of real marvel here. But rest assured, I wouldn’t divulge any of it, even though it is practically known everyplace. Thrillers as this are rare and I would want the viewer to experience it to the fullest and mirror the joy I earned on watching this gem of a film.
The word that comes to my mind while I intend to discuss the central theme is Irony. It reminds me of a certain image, a certain cinematic image from Hong Kong director John Woo’s action classic Face/Off. John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, after their face transplants, are separated by a mirror-door in an action sequence. As they turn around to shoot each other, they pause for a brief moment looking at their reflections in the mirror, their reflections but not them. The reflections is what they hate, their existence. In a certain way, Mou Gaan Dou is just that. Both of them hate their individual disguise, one (Undercover cop Chan) looking for freedom and the other (Inspector Lau) looking for redemption. Their lives mirrored into the other’s existence, is the central theme of the movie.
The first word that comes to my mind while I intend to describe this movie is Efficiency. There have been few thrillers that so effortlessly thrill you, keep you right on the edge of your seat, get you acquainted with such rich characters yet manage to knock you with killer twists and pull a fast one on you. Endlessly inventive, this is not one of those films that are just that. It explores the psychology of being a mole like no other film. And all this within 98 minutes. Phew.
The performances are fantastic from the two leads, especially for an action movie. Andy Lau in a brilliant minimalist performance evokes considerable depth from his character. Tony Leung, although hampered by what I perceive as certain imperfections in the script (I’ll come to that later), conveys remarkably the passage of time and his weariness on the job. It is because of these performances that the film manages to capture a decade of events in 98 minutes without getting confusing. Eric Tsang is brilliant as the mob boss Sam, exuding the authority in every frame he is in. His is a scene stealing performance, sure, but not the ones that depend on excessive hamming and being over-the-top (Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman). A special mention to Anthony Wong who captures the moral center of the film, the man who is the most stable both literally and figuratively. Watching him, I was reminded of Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Father Bobby in Sleepers. Although not boasting of too much screen time, he still manages to express a remarkable moral integrity on screen.
The technical aspects are brilliant and especially the cinematography. It doesn’t copy the Michael Mann frame architecture but evokes the same gritty and polished feel. The glass buildings around on the roof top bring a poetic resonance of the two characters when they meet there, each one reflecting the other. But the film is brilliantly smart and never does “window dress” that act. It just keeps it in the background, rich and thought-provoking.
Strangely, for although it stands as a script brimming with intelligence and novelty (the cell phone and Morse code usage is something that I’ve never seen before), it is the very thing that I’m cross with to an extent. That and the direction. Mind that both these elements are executed with a dazzling efficiency. And in a strange way, these two elements that take us into the depths of these two characters are the ones that undermine its quest from remarkably good to the truly great. But there’re elements that often undermine the very thought process, the very theme that this movie stands for. Undercover cop Chan is shown, quiet often, to be at ease with the status quo of his life. The plot, brilliant, is what drives the movie and its characters when it should be the other way round. Often, in a movie as this, tension builds from the anticipation of what the characters would do. Brilliant examples of this are Reservoir Dogs and Donnie Brasco, although the latter is an inferior picture compared to this. You have established characters and given a seemingly edgy situation, it builds an extraordinary tension. Although Mou Gaan Dou is one of the fastest paced films I’ve seen, it is certainly not the best paced. We tend to understand the situation of the person through the lines they utter. On more than one occasion, the central characters utter lines that tell us of their status. I’m one of those who find such lines superfluous. Dialogues like these, which tell the state of mind, should not be a status reminder but a supporting element to the entire plot and the character’s actions. They then extend the gravity they are supposed to. A major character goes redemptive by means of a single dialogue. Although the makers can defend themselves that they had brought it out right at the start, that too is by means of a single dialogue.
The usage of female for window-dressing, as is quiet fantastically done in the film poster, is shallow. They’re entirely needless with no depth and the only purpose they serve is to advance the plot. In a way, the female usage represents the shortcomings I’m at cross with. Plus the ill-advised usage of flashbacks at important events highlighted with an easy-to-sentimentalize background score undermines the amazing leanness of this film. The film doesn’t deserve such cheap ingredients to make it “accessible”.
But my complaints shouldn’t divert, not for a moment, from the fact that this is one of the finest entries into the crime genre. I had such complaints because the film deserved them. It is so good. To pack so much clarity and so much entertainment in a 98-minute film is amazing enough.

What really stays in the mind is what would happen to Inspector Lau at the end, after the film. I know the sequels offer some answers but I would love to dwell on it in my own mind for some time before I get down to them. The film deserves that precious time of ours.

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