Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer, at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 2000 (updated 9 May 2001).
Time and Tide is as confusing a movie as it is exhilarating (in parts) to watch. Perhaps it helps to think of it as an interesting experiment, one that misfired in interesting ways.
I usually try to offer a brief plot synopsis, in order to help orient the reader who might not have yet seen the film, or as a helpful reminder of the shape and content of the film's narrative. Time and Tide defeats me, here. Its plot is so complex, so multifariously intractable -- well, I might as well admit that it was pretty incoherent, a reaction that many other viewers and reviewers seem to share -- that it defies synopsis.
[deep breath] ... There's this bartender, Tyler, played by current Cantopop uber-idol Nicholas Tse [listen to some of his music], who brings his usual magnetism and slightly quirky visual "cool" to the role. A wild night on the town with lesbian cop Jo (Hong Kong model Cathy Tsui Chi-kei) and voila, she's pregnant. Tyler feels the need to earn support money, which leads him to sign up for Uncle Ji's (Anthony Wong) bodyguard agency. Whose clients include a gangster, whose daughter Hui (played well by neophyte actress and slightly edgy Cantopop singer Candy Lo Hau-yam) is also pregnant, and whose husband Jack (played with quiet power by Taiwanese ur-rebel rocker Wu Bai) is on the run from, well, South American mercenary drug dealers? Something like that. (anyone who really needs to read about the plot is welcome to check out the press kit synopsis; alternatively, you could download the 4.4 M trailer from Cinemasie.com). As Steve Erickson writes in his City Pages review: "Tsui's interest seems to lie almost entirely in his images, rather than narrative." Pinned to this narrative are flashbacks (or cut-aways) to stereotypically dingy South American locations, set pieces in gaudy Hong Kong restaurants and parking garages, a pyrotechnically impressive sequence within and outside the walls of a burning Hong Kong apartment, and a grand two-part finale inside two Kowloon landmarks: the KCR Railroad Terminal and the Hung Hom Coliseum.
In order to think through the film, it helps mentally to split it into two parts. The first, Tyler's story, seems wild, anarchic, experimental, somewhat chaotic, dazzling, and more hit than miss. I'm wondering if this is what Tsui refers to when he talks about "a new language of filmmaking". I'm more than willing to go along for whatever ride he's proposing, just because it's so provocatively destabilizing. I'm not sure I can analyze, yet, exactly what this part of the film is trying to do. But it seems to have something to do with the narrative level of the film (clear story-telling) being destabilized by all sorts of slippages in time and place (a-chronological cutting, rapid shifts in spatial and temporal perspective) through quick cutting, unexpected juxtapositions of shots, and other such "experimental" film techniques. This works, for me at least, at creating a sensation of something really new happening here: a new way of processing Hong Kong's way of feeling, a new attempt to synthesize something out of Hong Kong's advanced metropolitan film culture, much like Chungking Express [Chongqing senlin] offered seven years ago. And comparisons between Time and Tide and Wong Kar-wai's film are quite explicitly built into the former's style and form: Tsui Hark's heavy use of introspective voice-over, for one, is Hong Kong cinema's usual signal that Wong Kar-wai's style is at issue. So, perhaps, Time and Tide is in part Tsui Hark's sustained update of or response to Chungking Express, in the same way that his The Blade [Dao] is not difficult to read as a response to and rebuttal of Wong's Ashes of Time [Dong xie xi du].
Unfortunately, though, this applies to just the first part of Time and Tide. Once the big action set-piece machinery is revved up, the movie seems to shrink, or devolve, into a commentary on his Hollywood experiences, via several blatantly appropriated John Woo tropes: slow motion doves, rival gunmen aiming at close range at each other's heads, and, more broadly, the gigantic set piece finale, which seems to take as its model John Woo's calling card to Hollywood, Hard Boiled [trailer]. These extended set pieces (which move from the KCR Railway Station across the plaza to the Hung Hom Coliseum) are rather straightforwardly shot, lumbering and expensive action sequences in extravagantly exploited, complex locations that depend more on special effects, pacing (which becomes relatively sluggish, here) and staging, and less on interesting editing practices.
It's as if Tsui has tried to effect a synthesis of his recent Hong Kong and Hollywood movie-making experiences. But instead of demonstrating how those two can be interestingly combined, how they can inform each other in complicated, tension-filled ways, he has merely juxtaposed the two, side by side, in an uneasy and awkwardly unbalanced whole that merely says "first I can do it this way, then I can do it that way". What happens to Nicholas Tse's intriguingly splintered self image and self-consciousness in the second half of the film? This is just one example of what the film seems to be willing to discard, so that, slimmed down, it can pose as a giant action machine. One that wants to show it can out-Hollywood Hollywood (or, more specifically, out-Woo Woo).
Here's the problem, in a nutshell: Tsui Hark is at his best when he is looking forwards (Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, or Peking Opera Blues), or even backwards and forwards at the same time (Once Upon a Time in China). With this outlook, he can be years ahead of his time, even in what are ostensibly exercises in nostalgia. Where Tsui is not at his best is in looking backwards, over his shoulder: at Wong Kar-wai, or at John Woo, or even at Hollywood production practices he tried to exploit in his brief Van Damme phase).
I would find the second part of the film to be more interesting if I could detect any attempts to distance itself from the generic blockbuster action sequence: any ironic commentary, divergences from genre expectations, odd emphases, or the like ,which might suggest that Tsui has interesting, critical things to say about the genre. Attempts that might suggest that he has taken into account how this blockbuster style of filmmaking has been distorted, altered, re-configured in response to its contact with the first, very creative, section of Time and Tide. But I don't see it. So, I'm willing provisionally to consider this to be an interesting way-station film for Tsui, an experiment that might, in retrospect, mark out a pathway between his Hollywood experience and a renewed and re-energized return to Hong Kong. Perhaps his forthcoming sequel to Zu will reveal the new direction towards which Time and Tide can at best gesture.
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