Warning: this is less a review than my own confession of pain.
I should have listened.
When Confession of Pain was released theatrically in Hong Kong last December, the initial mixed to negative reaction quickly radiated across the Internet. I did not want to believe it.
The next day, ScreenAnarchy writer The Visitor reported from Malaysia that the film was "watchable but forgettable." Still I did not want to believe.
The following day, ScreenAnarchy writer Stefan reported from Singapore: "I want to love this movie, but I can't find many reasons to." Still I did not want to believe.
Subsequently the film was released on DVD in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia. Little enthusiasm was generated. It screened at the Berlin Market, where critic Derek Elley of Variety described it as "an extremely good-looking but dramatically weak cop-crimer that generates little real tension." Still...
The remake of Infernal Affairs (The Departed) won multiple Academy Awards at the end of February. Remake rights of Confession were sold to Warner Brothers on behalf of Leonard DiCaprio's production company and Asian remake specialist Roy Lee, who said that Departed scripter William Monahan would pen the Hollywood version. Still...
Now you might just think me a stubborn git for not believing the lukewarm word of mouth -- come to think of it, "stubborn git" is probably a valid description -- but I like to hold my own opinion. Though I respect and value all the other ScreenAnarchy writers, we don't always agree on everything. I had what I thought were valid reasons for holding out hope.
Directors Andrew Lau Wai-Keung and Alan Mak Siu-Fai made two-thirds of an awesome trilogy (Infernal Affairs), a very decent piece of auto porn (Initial D), and individually had helmed some of the more popular (The Stormriders, Young and Dangerous for Lau) and satisfying (A War Named Desire for Mak) Hong Kong flicks of the past dozen years. How bad could Confession of Pain be?
So when a review copy of the movie became available (courtesy of the lovely folks at movieXclusive), I jumped at the chance to see it.
From a visual perspective, Confession does, indeed, look very good. No wonder -- Andrew Lau began his career as a cinematographer, with early notable credits such as Ringo Lam's City on Fire and Wong Kar-Wai's first film As Tears Go By (for which Lau was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award) before moving into the director's chair (Against All in 1990).
A protégé (later promoted to production partner) of Wong Jing -- the supreme commander of lowest-common-denominator popular cinema -- Lau has consistently evinced a clear desire to create good-looking, fast-moving entertainment. Witness the Young and Dangerous series, or the triumvirate of The Stormriders, A Man Called Hero, and The Legend of Speed. But popcorn only stays fresh so long, and as production budgets shrank, the weaknesses of the formula (sound + motion -- heart) became more apparent. Lau could still string together stylish images to pleasing effects, yet the films immediately preceding Infernal Affairs ranged from ineffective (Bullets of Love, Dance of a Dream) to outright disasters (The Avenging Fist, The Wesley's Mysterious File).
Thanks to Infernal Affairs and the perception that Lau was chiefly responsible -- asked about the co-directing credit at one post-screening Q&A, Lau said he was the "senior director" -- he became a hot property. His reportedly below-average 3-D horror The Park got a slot at Sundance 2004, he was tapped to direct an English-language film (the still unreleased The Flock) and he got financing to make a glossy action romance with an all-star Korean cast (Daisy), which bombed both artistically and financially last year.
Really, in doing research for this article and reflecting upon Lau's career, I realized I had developed a blind spot. I met him when he came to Los Angeles for the AFI Fest screenings of the IA trilogy in November 2004, and was tremendously impressed with his high energy and infectious enthusiasm. He was funny, sharp, and quick during the Q&A sessions. When I asked him beforehand about his influences, he said that, when he wasn't in production, he would just sit in his office watching movies all day long. What movies? "Everything," he said. He got as many DVDs from as many places as possible and just wanted to watch everything he could, no matter the genre, country of origin, director, or reputation. "I love movies," he said. Indeed, while his movies were screening, he visited a nearby theater to catch up with Taylor Hackford's Ray, and on his way back for the Q&A, he did a little impression of Jamie Foxx doing Ray Charles while we walked down the hallway.
So it pains me that Confession never ignites from its slow boil. It's not a bad movie, per se, it's just kind of lumpy and undercooked.
As reported elsewhere, this is not a thriller. It's not really even a mystery, though the 'reversal of personalities' and 'personal histories that are not initially revealed yet eventually explain everything' resemble a more traditional mystery. I think it means to be a penetrating look into the hearts, moods, and haunted memories of two friends turned antagonists, something like, 'Can you ever truly defeat your personal demons?' But the unpeeling of layers is torturously slow, and what's uncovered at the core is not very interesting or original. It feels like there are extra, unnecessary beats in every sequence. Neither Tony Leung Chiu-wai nor Takeshi Kaneshiro are able to get a handle on their characters -- also a reflection upon the co-directors -- and both Shu Qi and Xu Jinglei are pretty much wasted. As a whole, the movie evaporates from memory rather quickly.
It makes it more apparent than ever that the success of Infernal Affairs (the first and second installments) was dependent on the scripts by Felix Chong and Alan Mak, whatever Mak did as co-director, the editors (which included Danny Pang), and the excellent performances. It makes one wish that Mak would get out on his own and follow his apparent inclination to make more off-beat, original films. It makes me wish that Lau could better identify his own strengths and recognize his weaknesses, and find collaborators (and scripts) to better complement -- and challenge -- his talents.
And, yes, blast it, yes, it makes me wish I had listened more to why people were disappointed.