Hong Kong, 1998
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer
Anthony Wong is grunge-cop Tung; Sam Lee his partner Sam; Michael Wong is straight-laced Cheung, their new boss. Thrown together in a rough Hong Kong neighbourhood, it's order vs. chaos. Whose style will win over whom is the issue, to be decided largely through a series of late night/early morning conversations, as they hang out, do drugs, and date in a string of bars, dens, and dives.
I can't share the Hong Kong film critics' enthusiasm for Beast Cops, at least not completely. Though it is director/writer/producer Gordon Chan's finest film yet, in my opinion. Chan makes some very interesting, unprecedented moves: he rejects the high polish, the finished look of his recent techno-cop films (the series that includes Final Option (1994), First Option (1996), Option Zero (1997, as producer), and Armageddon (1997)), and substitutes something much more raw. For Beast Cops, he, co-director Dante Lam, and cinematographer Tony Cheung adopt the Hong Kong film industry's small-budget "indie" look of the moment: a gritty, intense, casually shot feel that depends on a jittery, swoopy, hyperactive hand held camera, expressive lighting effects, and saturated colours. It's a style (whose current popularity might be derived from its assimilation into the last huge commercial success of Hong Kong cinema, Young and Dangerous (1996)) that has well served several fine recent Hong Kong films: the standouts include Too Many Ways to Be Number One (1997), Made in Hong Kong (1997), and The Longest Nite (1998). In their bravura display of formal invention and their uncompromisingly bleak critical attitude, these three works are eviscerating an old world, laying the groundwork for a new. Their radical sensibility fits hand in glove with their radical style.
A style that summons with it a certain set of ideological stands. It denotes first youth: a rebellious, alternative world that's estranged from the mainstream, a token of a different way of life. And it implies a moral rebelliousness, too: the fixed, stable perspective, the neat Manichean categories of right and wrong that underlay the collapsing old order are supplanted by a mobile, shifting, uncertain and ambiguous world. And this new world supports at best an infinite series of moral frames, perspectives, attitudes. And, finally, there's a kind of neo-surrealism to the style (the consequence of plays with lighting, filters, and lenses) that simultaneously distorts, satirizes, and excavates the "unconscious" underpinnings of our taken-for-granted mainstream world.
The problem with Beast Cops is that it adopts the style without adopting its consequences, its implications. To be sure, Chan and screenwriter Chan Hing-kai make a stab in the general direction of these "alternative" youth films: they've added a third, young rebel character (Sam); but he never really meshes with the standard older buddy team of Cheung and Tung. As for the surreal, there is an awful sequence at the film's end. But it seems to have crept in like something out of a B-grade Anthony Wong zombie/horror-film: it is so undermotivated by the plot, and such a violent rupture of tone, that it does serious damage to the picture as a whole.
Although Tung recites an overly explicit speech about the "grey areas", where normal, stiff-necked moral rules can't possibly be expected to apply, the rigid buddy-film schematics rule. Mike and Tung are poles apart. We see a stark choice, and a bourgeois audience is expected to transfer its identification from Mike's naive puritanism to Tung's real-world savvy, just as Mike himself learns to do under Tung's tutelage.
Even for beast cops, there are ultimately clear choices to be made, and the Gordon Chan rules apply: brotherhood and loyalty override other obligations. In the end, those who follow these rules win, those who abuse them lose. The nervous anarchic energy of the film's style seems utterly at odds with its convictions. Beast Cops dares to betray a fierce, unfocused anxiety at loose in 1998 Hong Kong. But it panics, and throws another set of hero-experts at them. It's Tung's expert knowledge of the ins and outs of the underworld that Beast Cops celebrates: rules of conduct (whom to intimidate, whom to appease); the lay of the land (all night gambling dens and discos are the primary locations); the seamy balances of power between underworld figures: all these are Tung's domain, that he gleefully, and with zest and a manic comic verve, imparts to Cheung.
But Tung's mastery of underworld savvy is just the flip side of Andy Lau's super-technologue (from Armageddon), or the hyper-armed Michael Wong-commanded SWAT squads of the "Option" series. The Gordon Chan formula triumphs: narrative closure is assured by an exercise of expert knowledge allied with a professionalized monopoly of force. It is precisely in this way that a "safely" liberal, middle-class police state reasserts control of a world that seems frightening. To see the alternative, a world that, though unsettlingly out-of-control, contains a sense of freedom without limits, you'll have to watch Patrick Yau's ferocious The Longest Nite (for pessimism), or Fruit Chan's sublime Made in Hong Kong (for poetry).
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