After its world premiere in Korea at last month's Busan International Film Festival, Longman Leung and Sunny Luk's much-touted directorial debut Cold War finally opens on home turf. Originally slated for a summer release, before being pushed back to mid-October and then again to 8 November, the film was eventually unveiled to a home crowd last night, as opening film of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. After reading Pierce Conran's review from BIFF, my expectations were pretty low, and perhaps it is because of this that Cold War actually proved to be an overall engaging and entertaining cop drama.
Pierce's main concern with the film was its over-reliance on grand spectacle and hollow bombast, rather than substantive, character-based drama:
"Over-produced and austere, it features strong and slick production values but lacks confidence, verve or panache...the lifeless performances, relentless pacing, bombastic staging and needlessly convoluted plot only add to the woes of this disappointing effort."
Conversely, I felt the film worked best when focusing on the central power struggle between Aaron Kwok and Leung Kar Fai's rival Deputy Police Commissioners, or when navigating the myriad tiers of bureaucratic middle management. It was Leung & Luk's attempts to transplant the high drama of the workplace into the streets of Hong Kong that really let the film down. Whether staging harbour-side shootouts, urban car chases or rooftop standoffs, it was here the film became unstuck. Within the relative safety of police headquarters, however, Cold War remained consistently engaging, bolstered by a number of strong performances. It is therefore to the film's credit that Cold War stages much of its real action indoors.
After a bomb goes off in the heart of Mongkok and five cops are kidnapped, Deputy Police Commissioner M B Lee (Leung Kar Fai) is quick to launch a counter attack. Lee's actions are called into question by fellow Dep. Comm. Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok), who clamours for caution and transparency that won't further endanger the general public. This standoff between the two most powerful men in the Hong Kong Police threatens to fracture the entire force, pitting Operations against Management at a time when the city desperately needs unity.
Pierce was dead on when he says Cold War benefits greatly from Leung's previous experience as an Art Director. Working alongside cinematographers Jason Kwan (Love In The Buff, Bruce Lee My Brother) and Kenny Tse (The Viral Factor, The Stool Pigeon), the film always looks fantastic, whether fetishizing Hong Kong's stunning commercial centre and harbour front, or bringing cinematic dynamism to the normally uninspiring interiors of these civil servants' headquarters. But, in my opinion, this was not a desperate attempt to compensate for "lifeless performances" or a "convoluted plot."
While much of the grandstanding in Cold War is between Leung Kar Fai and Aaron Kwok, the film boasts a large, strong supporting cast, including Gordon Lam and Chin Kar Lok as the respective second-in-commands, Charlie Young as Head of Public Relations, Aarif Rahman as an ambitious young Internal Affairs investigator, and Eddie Peng as Dep. Comm. Lee's son - and one of the kidnapped officers. Michael Wong, who always raises a smile, literally phones in his performance as absent Police Commissioner Tsang. There's even a brief cameo from Andy Lau, amusingly riffing on his role in the Infernal Affairs trilogy (which has cast a long shadow over every Hong Kong cop/triad drama of the last decade) as Secretary for Security.
The plot manages to stay clear and comprehensible throughout, despite all these antagonising elements doing their best to derail and undermine each other's handling of the situation at every turn. The script throws a few red herrings and buried clues into its opening few minutes, which may confuse attentive viewers and late-comers alike, but for the most part, the power plays across the boardroom remain straightforward yet engaging. Pierce cited the film's sense of detachment, by cowering away in the city's skyscrapers, rather than taking to Hong Kong's bustling streets as a negative, but I believe it was a deliberate choice by the writers, highlighting Lee and Lau's lack of recent frontline experience. It has been years since these top level decisionmakers got their hands dirty in the line of fire, and as a result have lost touch with crime-fighting at street level. This is underscored, first by Lee's bungled raid early on, but then later when Lau spearheads a cash handoff with an equal lack of success.
This sequence, involving Lau's character and a citywide car chase, is a perfect example of my major criticism of the film. While writer-director Leung's previous experience seems to have paid off here, the same cannot be said for his counterpart, veteran second unit director Sunny Luk. On the infrequent, though notable occasions when Cold War does take to the streets, the film stumbles. One of the hallmarks of Hong Kong Action Cinema is its real world staging of spectacular stunts and shootouts in and around the city's real population going about their day. Cold War brings precious little of that to the screen, particularly in what should have been a standout car chase that, ironically, prominently features action director extraordinaire Chin Kar Lok.
Suffice to say, I do have complaints with the film, but far fewer than Pierce had, and my overall opinion is that it shows far greater promise and delivers far more entertainment value than his review seemed to indicate. Aaron Kwok is particularly impressive, more than standing his ground opposite the always-excllent Leung Kar Fai. So much time is spent on the inner conflicts between feuding department heads that bit players like Andy On and Terence Yin are left with shockingly little screen time, and Byron Mann's villain is sadly relegated to little more than a snarling face. Had the film spent more time with these three in particular, Cold War could easily have resonated more as a real world thriller, than the slightly theatrical political procedural that it ultimately becomes.