|Bullets Over Summer
Hong Kong, 1999
Reviewed at the 1999 Toronto InternationalFilm Festival by Shelly Kraicer
Director Wilson Yip Wai-shun's Bullets Over Summer is a playful mixed genre movie. Perhaps a bit lightweight, for a film festival choice, but lightweight isn't necessarily all that bad. It gives, in this case, real, varied pleasures, especially for savvy Hong Kong film audience, who can catch the references and parodies as they fly by.
And lightweightedness, here, is achieved, not through absence (there's plenty of "content") but rather through a sort of over-stuffed text, a superabundance of scenes, moods, genres and styles. I'm not sure that this game playing really goes anywhere, but when it is done with this much confidence, panache, and virtuosity, it is hard not to admire.
In its structure, Bullets Over Summer is a kind of sandwich: a family comedy centre between 2 slices of male bonding cop drama. The buddy-cop sections evoke a particularly dark, bullet-ridden corner of the genre. The films of Milky Way Image provide the most current reference: Bullets Over Summer successfully recreates the sort of mood and ethos of a bleak, violence-soaked, disturbing, downbeat Milky Way jeremiad (The Longest Nite [An hua, 1998], or Expect the Unexpected [Fei chang tu ran, 1998], or A Hero Never Dies [Zhen xin ying xiong, 1998]).
The plot follows the standard, here: cop team Francis Ng and Louis Koo, breaking up a relatively small-potatoes convenience story holdup, stumble on a horrific gang robbery-shooting. A stakeout eventually brings them back together with the gang, provoking a climactic second fight/shootout/chase, and a downbeat resolution in which almost everyone loses.
But the film's heart is in the sandwich filling: the stakeout section, which expands into a sustained urban idyll, a sort of family-romance-comedy, wherein Ng and Koo's characters manage to find and knit together members of an extended family: Granny (veteran Helen Law Lan), whose apartment they occupy for the duration of the stakeout, and who mistakes them for her two errant grandsons; Yan (model "Michelle"), a temporarily homeless schoolgirl whom Koo has designs on, and Jennifer (Lam Mei-ching), a very pregnant neighbourhood laundress, who manages to capture Ng's heart.
The style of Bullets Over Summer is wildly, anarchically playful: the camera bounces off anyone's and anything's point of view: it can just as easily adopt the pov of a character, a rolling piece of fruit, a leaping cat, or the floor. There's an even more impressive facility with bouncing through time: in one quickly edited virtuostic sequence, we see woven together shots of Ng's present situation, a flashback to its causes and flashforward within that to its results, all in about 10 seconds. The central section is capped with that quintessential family comedy scene: the family dinner -- but here, with a twist: there are no "real" family relationships: just what the characters have constructed/imagined.
Ng's complex character (burdened with the early stages of Huntington's Disease, we are told) is intended to hold all the manifold parts of this multiply-inflected film together, though they (and he) seem in danger of flying apart at any moment. The fatal-disease convention (once a staple of pre-1997 Hong Kong cinema) is supposed to motivate and justify all the various bits of his character, and it does, to a point... but where credibility threatens to evaporate, Ng's superb acting takes over. And he almost succeeds, with a brilliantly modulated performance that manages to convey the capacity for violence, tenderness, suppressed rage, and heroic self-sacrifice, all under tremendous pressure in the same personality.
There's a revved-up, wacky, aggressive sort of exuberance to Bullets Over Summer that sets it apart from Wilson Yip's earlier (intensely) black comedy Bio-Zombie [Sheng hua shou shi, 1998]. Whereas that film set up a nightmarishly bleak denouement, offering no possibility of a hopeful future to its protagonists (and, by extension, to Hong Kongers in the post-1997 era), Bullets Over Summer radically redraws the picture. With a new, pumped up, superhumanly willed-into-existence sort of optimism at-all-costs that translates, on screen, into a couple of disappointingly pat visual cliches pointing to rebirth, continuation, new possibilities, Bullets Over Summer challenges us to imagine a society, reconstructed, rebuilt, out of anything on hand, in particular out of mis-imagined nostalgia, bits of fake history, scraps of misunderstood affection. Anything, no matter how "degraded", will do, anything can serve as raw material for a culture of bricolage that Bullets Over Summer proposes and celebrates.
I'm still not convinced that Bullets Over Summer really belonged in this festival. It wouldn't be at all out of place in a review of highlights of recent Hong Kong cinema, but it doesn't stop me from feeling the weight of what's missing from Toronto this year, The Longest Summer [Qu nian yan hua te bie duo] and Love Will Tear Us Apart [Tian shang ren jian], the two best films out of Hong Kong over the past year.
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