Sunday 6 July 2008

Breaking News (2004)

Back in the late eighties when the Made in Hong Kong video label started releasing quality copies of Hong Kong movies as they should be released: in the original widescreen format, with decent subtitles and liner notes, director Johnny To was a key name on a number of releases. The Heroic Trio films were fun and intriguing, though they could hardly have gone wrong with the title roles going to Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui and Michelle Yeoh. Best of all though was The Barefoot Kid, which I've been trying to track down on DVD ever since, with Maggie Cheung again and Aaron Kwok.

We open with a bust gone bad. Two cops on the beat unwittingly interrupt an operation that leaves cops dead and wounded, passersby dead and wounded and the bad guys free and gone. It isn't a complete whitewash but it makes the police force look like complete idiots, and as it happens, the media was right there on the scene covering a traffic accident. Naturally police ineptitude makes for a great news broadcast, and the press have a field day. To counter such an impact to their image, Commissioner Rebecca Fong begins to prepare a counterattack, the object being primarily to restore the image of the force and only secondarily to catch the bad guys.

Very shortly she has an opportunity to stage a good show for the six million citizens of Hong Kong. The crooks are tracked to a block of flats and what seems like half the force descends to make the impression she wants. However there's already a police presence on site, in the form of Insp Cheung, who has been trying to track them down himself, and of course his trying to catch the bad guys conflicts with Fong's attempts to spin the story while it's unfolding. Worst of all, there are other criminals in the same building, a couple of hitmen who think that the cops are after them.

Soon we end up with a dynamic game of wits. Cheung catch the bad guys, spin doctors trying to make everything seem like everything else, and two sets of bad guys in the same apartment with hostages, spinning everything in return. The only idiot in the whole situation is Mr Yip, the cab driver who owns the apartment. The cops are bright, especially the one who's just trying to get the job done. The crooks are bright too, and Yuen, their leader, is not just an expert with explosives but counters the spin. Fong feeds news every half hour to the reporters with footage carefully edited by professionals and spun every which way but loose. Yuen uses mobile phone footage and Mr Yip's kid's computer to counter it. As one cop points out, 'communications technology has its pros and cons'.

This film is very cool. The camerawork is excellent with a very fluid and versatile camera. The opening battle scene is especially notable because it's almost entirely one shot. The camera moves around all over the place, circles entirely around, moves up in the air, tracks this way and that, yet keeps the shot running. The choreography needed to make this work is intricate but whoever runs it here does the job amazingly. The rest of the film follows suit, making this an intelligent and incisive drama. Johnny To is definitely a name I need to continue searching out.

The leads are solid. Richie Ren is a great bad guy, very tough and intelligent and characterful. I've never seen him in anything before but he seems to have been a busy man with 19 films in the last ten years. Nick Cheung is even more prolific and makes for a very persistent Insp Cheung. He's a worthy wildcard. The real adversary though is Rebecca Fong, played by Kelly Chen from Infernal Affairs. She's driven here, totally dedicated to her belief in how things should work and that dedication gets to be scary. In many ways, she has even more balls than the other two lead characters. Backing them up is regular Johnny To actor Simon Yam and a number of other capable actors. The Yip family are most obviously fun though, played by Suet Lam and a couple of unknown child actors.

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