Monday 28 February 2011

Divergence (2005)

Director: Benny Chan
Stars: Aaron Kwok, Ekin Cheng and Daniel Wu

Divergence is a strange puppy. A Hong Kong thriller, it seems to shine almost effortlessly but the more attention you pay to it, the more it seems to be going through the motions. Produced and directed by Benny Chan, who's helmed a few recent Jackie Chan flicks, it stars Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng, reunited for the first time since The Storm Riders in 1998, adding Daniel Wu, who I may only have seen in Naked Weapon. Kwok, on the other hand, starred with Maggie Cheung in one of my favourite Hong Kong movies, The Barefoot Kid, among others, while Cheng starred in Twins Effect and Re-Cycle, again among others. It's a notable cast and it's hard to fault them on their performances. The script is by Ivy Ho, who won both a Golden Bauhinia and a Hong Kong Film Award for Comrades: Almost a Love Story and both a Golden Horse and a Hong Kong Film Award for July Rhapsody. This is surprising subject matter for her, but it seems to unfold well.

The three have separate stories that intertwine as the film progresses. Aaron Kwok is Suen Siu Yan, a cop who used to host a TV show, presumably something like America's Most Wanted or Crimewatch, but now works for the Commercial Crime Bureau. He's apparently a good cop, but he has a private torment: his fiancée, Su Fong, disappeared ten years ago without trace, yet he sees her everywhere he goes. Cheng is To Hou Sun, the lawyer of the money launderer Suen is trying to bring down. He's very slick, though unfortunately so slick that there's very little real character to watch. We mostly see him when he's working and yet his real depth only emerges when he isn't. Daniel Wu is Koo, a top notch assassin who shoots dead Hung Chi Man, the money launderer's accountant who Suen is bringing back from Canada to testify, in the back of a moving unmarked cop car. He's very good indeed at what he does but he also has a history.

Of course, being a high profile Hong Kong cop thriller, trying to reach an audience who had seen Infernal Affairs and its sequels very recently, there has to be complexity and much of that ties to how the three subplots come together. Koo is the initial link between the three, but then Suen discovers that To's wife Amy looks so remarkably like his fiancée that Malaysian actress Angelica Lee plays both of them. She's underused throughout for someone who was so good in The Eye only three years earlier, but her parts are mostly important simply for being there. Her character isn't the only reason that we have question marks about To and wonder whether there are things we haven't discovered about him yet. For Koo's part, he has a quirky relationship with his agent Ting, played by the delightful Ning Jing, and we can't help but wonder what she has to do with the story and how she affects his character. Lots of questions are usually a good thing.
The problem here, or at least the first one of many, is that not all these questions go anywhere. It isn't that some just fizzle out, it's that they don't fizzle out but still don't go anywhere, which is more than a little frustrating. I'm all for dead ends and cinematic sleight of hand and complexity, but either I wasn't paying attention at the right moments or this one confused itself a few times and there wasn't much validation as to why certain characters proved to be massively important and others were pointless, not red herrings but just pointless. Beyond the characters mentioned thus far, there's Yiu Tin Chung, the money launderer under pressure. There's his boss, who gets more and more frustrated and throws subtle threats his way about his son, Yiu Ha, a cantopop singer big enough to have billboards around town but apparently not big enough to be labelled as anything but 'son of a millionaire' on the front pages when he's kidnapped.

Another subplot is introduced at the onset as a woman is chased down a dark alley. However the pursuer is pursued in turn and taken down with a garotte. Predators also being prey is a common refrain in Divergence but I'm not sure it really plays out to a neat coda. So many plot strands here ends up meaning that so much is almost but not quite done right, though it often takes a moment of reflection to realise that because the effortless feel draws us in like hypnotism. With reflection we wonder about the point. Who kidnapped Yiu Ha and why is one question, but it's overridden by the others that tie to Su Fong and Amy. What happened to Su Fong a decade ago? Is she Amy? If she is, why is she there and what part did To play in everything? She seems to be the key to the story, as she ties the three main characters together, but we don't see enough of her to really justify being the link. And so we start wondering if there's something else.
There is much to appreciate here, though the film as a whole ends up lacking. It's well shot, with some scenes being notably tense. The first chase between Suen and Koo has a gloriously subtle use of stunt driving, and there's much more of that as the film runs on. The end of that chase to the fish market is just as subtle and very neatly handled. The acting is solid, though with caveats as mentioned above. Aaron Kwok takes a while to really grow for me but the scene following Koo telling him about his girlfriend is a peach, however much some reviewers feel that it lurches into unintentional comedy. They may be right by the end of it, but the beginning is superb acting on Kwok's part. Wu is impressive, perhaps the best of the three leads, keeping a sly grin on his face throughout, whatever the circumstances. Cheng has to wait to the end to get some opportunities to really show what he can do because of the professional wall his character keeps up.

A number of supporting actors shine, but none have much to do. Angelica Lee is restricted for the most part to looking gorgeous, which is hardly a stretch for her, until the end of the film, and she has more to do than many of the supporting characters. The hugely experienced Eric Tsang stood out for me as Uncle Choi, who runs the police morgue, managing to flesh out his part to a surprising degree, given that he has nowhere near the screen time he could have easily been given. The film itself has much of the same problem. It does so much but never enough, as so much of what could have been there wasn't, while so much else was. It's slick, it's complex and it's fun to watch, but the more you think about what you're seeing, the more you see past the style to discover that it's masking that the substance really isn't there. It seems to be but it isn't and when the credits roll you wonder why you feel underwhelmed.

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