Man on the Brink
Under the influence of a 'new wave' of young television-trained and/or overseas educated filmmakers in the late 1970s and early 80s, Hong Kong cinema was on the brink of radical change when writer-director-cinematographer Alex Cheung Kwok-ming chose to focus on the ethically ambiguous twilight world of an undercover policeman for his second feature.
Man on the Brink (1981) not only helped redefine what had hitherto been a minor personage in the dramatis personae of Cantonese characters, but started a trend that would see the clandestine cop escalate to a major presence on Hong Kong celluloid.
It wasn't so much the director's script as his approach that made Man on the Brink so compelling. After all, the plot revolving around junior officer Chiu (Eddie Chan), eager to prove himself by going on a two-year masquerade as a triad member and sinking ever deeper into a moral abyss, was not in itself novel, traversing territory familiar to the era's movie buffs through Hollywood hits such as Serpico (released in Hong Kong in 1974).
What distinguished Chiu's travails was the unbridled energy afforded the tale by Cheung's enthusiastic direction, the rawness of his frequently hand-held camerawork lensed amid some of the city's grittier locations, the staccato rhythm of K.K. Chiang's editing, and performances that seem remarkably shorn of artifice even with the post-dubbed dialogue that was a standard practice of the time.
Chan's fervour resulted in a Golden Horse Award for best actor, with Cheung named best director. Though their careers faded with unexpected swiftness, Chiu went on to become a prototype for Hong Kong's undercover world.
The outcomes were frequently hackneyed, as in To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui, a 1994 remake whose Chinese title translates as 'New Man on the Brink' but failed to break new ground. More fortuitous was the paradigm's dazzling transformation in the Infernal Affairs trilogy of 2002-03, a bracing affirmation of the genre's continued relevance as Hong Kong motion pictures struggle to keep a viable local identity in a 21st-century film scene far removed from Chiu's universe.
Man on the Brink, Jan 18, 7.30pm, HK Film Archive