Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
I don’t experience nearly as many ‘oh shit’ moments in movies as I once did. Or maybe I do, I don’t know… I watch a lot of films so maybe they just seem so few and far between. And I’m not referring specifically to an impressive effect, a jump scare, or a dramatic game changer here (like the box revelation from Seven). I mean the quick and dirty little things I just don’t see coming beforehand. The first appearance of a cave-dweller in The Descent. The bus scene from Final Destination. (These scenes never involve cats jumping out of the shadows by the way.)
So why am I telling you this? Because this week’s Foreign Object has four such scenes. And two of them occur in the first few minutes. As impressive as that is, Murderer threatens to squander the good will earned from these scenes and from a very solid first hour with a second-half reveal that almost completely screws the proverbial pooch. Almost…
Chief Inspector Ling (Aaron Kwok) is having a bad day. A serial killer is drilling holes in people and leaving them for dead all over Hong Kong. Ling’s partner, Tai, has just been found critically wounded after being attacked by the killer, and Ling is found unconscious nearby. Unconscious and untouched. As if that weren’t bad enough, when he awakens from the ordeal he does so with no memory of the past several days. Why was he meeting Tai at this building? Why did the killer leave him unscathed? Suspicions begin to grow among the other police officers that Ling may have something to hide, and the very limited evidence they have so far does nothing to refute the whispers. Ling denies it all but soon begins to question himself when he comes across drawings in his possession that match the drill marks in the bodies and his own bloody handprint in an upstairs closet. Oh, and his electric drill is missing…
The film and Kwok’s performance both go a long way towards keeping us on edge and in the undecided column when it comes to Ling’s guilt. Murderer‘s first half sees him as entirely convinced (and entirely convincing) in his innocence, but slowly he begins to doubt both himself and his sanity. As his memories return and he pieces together the days leading up to the attack he moves closer to a truth that threatens not only his own future but the lives of his family and friends as well.
That truth comes a little over an hour into Murderer, and it may just be a bit too much for some viewers. It’s a plot point similar to one from a US release this year, but unlike in that film where it seemed empty and contrived it actually works here. Part of the reason that Murderer manages to pull it off is timing. The film doesn’t spring it on you at the very end but instead makes the reveal when there’s still forty minutes left for it to play out fully. Instead of being a cheap twist it ends up becoming a legitimate part of the story. The other factor that plays into its success is the commitment from the actors and filmmakers. Those in the know accept it and roll with it, and if you give them the chance they’ll make believers out of you too.
As mentioned above, Kwok does an outstanding job as a family man who may or may not be a murderer. (And may or may not be batshit insane.) He’s always been a solid actor, but he ups his game here and manages to take the viewer along with him as he charts his sanity against what his senses and memories are telling him. There may be a bit of over-acting towards the end, but the events of the film are enough to warrant a pass for the poor guy. Equally good are the actors surrounding Kwok with special mention going to Josie Ho as Ling’s wife and Tam Chun Ya as their adopted son, Sonny. The kid is very cute (as is Ho, but in a more adult way of course) and an incredibly good little actor. If I were his agent I’d be marketing him as the Chinese Jonathan Lipnicki. (Having just checked Lipnicki’s IMDB page maybe that wouldn’t be the wisest career move.)
Murderer is the debut film from director Chow Hin Yeung Roy who previously served as Assistant Director on Ang Lee’s deliriously smutty period spy film, Lust, Caution. He brings a fair amount of style to the film (as well as a penchant for crane shots), and he’s not afraid to let loose with the bloodletting either. There are a few splattery moments in the movie and then there’s the scene involving a woman with needles in her eyes… Writer Christine To (one of the relatively few female screenwriters in Chinese cinema) also wrote Jet Li’s Fearless and a gangster film for Andy Lau. She more than proves herself capable in the thriller genre, and I look forward to her next film too.
The plot reveal I mentioned will be a deal-breaker for some, and that’s a shame. What initially appears silly becomes a believable and moving piece of the puzzle thanks to the commitment of all involved. Fans of blood and mystery should enjoy the movie though if they can get past it. There are a few loose ends here and there, and Kwok’s performance does move briefly from genuine to melodramatic towards the end, but Murderer is a solid thriller that shows Hong Kong can still create quality films when it wants to. And if you don’t say (or think) “oh shit!” at least once during the movie then you’re not paying attention.