DIRECTOR BENNY CHAN Muk-sing has been quietly acknowledging a desire to make a non-action-based drama for years. But the branding mechanism of the film business has so far kept that a distant dream; few investors are ready to allow one of Hong Kong's top action filmmakers to slow down and tackle matters of the heart.
Chan reiterated a wish to helm a "pure drama" in our interview, two weeks after being besieged by autograph hunters at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival premiere of his action-packed The White Storm. The veteran director has certainly done his aspirations no favours with this exhilarating thriller that charts the quest of three childhood friends-turned Narcotics Bureau teammates to take down the Thailand-based patriarch of a drug-trafficking empire.
The film's many set pieces are over the top but the director is unequivocal about his objective. "Yes, it is [over the top] and that's because I hope the action element will be even more impressive this time," he says. "I've directed some Jackie Chan movies [including Who Am I? (1998), New Police Story (2004) and Rob-B-Hood (2006)], and their action scenes were by no means modest. But they're still not what I would regard as quintessential Benny Chan movies. I'm trying to further refine my style with The White Storm."
For all of its stylistic excess, Chan's new movie was actually inspired by a TV documentary that he saw by chance several years ago. Titled King of Cocaine after its subject, the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the programme chronicled the drawn-out battle between Escobar's cartel and law enforcement officers. Chan was fascinated by the righteousness that the police exhibited.
"At one point during the chase, after both sides had lost a lot of men, the drug lord asked the chief inspector why they had to arrest him [at all costs]. The inspector explained that it was simply the nature of their job. I was most impressed by these two figures, the drug kingpin and the police team captain. I decided to tell a similar story set in Thailand. But I lost interest in [Escobar] and focused on the police team. I wanted to explore the theme of brotherhood, which comes up when they make life-or-death decisions."
Chan has cast three of Hong Kong's most established actors - Sean Lau Ching-wan, Louis Koo Tin-lok and Nick Cheung Ka-fai - as the main characters in The White Storm. In the film, Lau plays the no-nonsense captain, and Cheung takes on the role of a loyal member of the police drug-busting team. Koo portrays a long-time undercover cop who, despite growing progressively weary of the criminal life, is forced to continue until Eight-faced Buddha (Lo Hoi-pang), one of the continent's biggest cocaine suppliers, is vanquished.
"If I didn't focus on the relationship between my three lead actors, and explore the theme of brotherhood, I wouldn't be doing my job", says Chan. "When I first approached them without a finished script, they all immediately said yes - this is a kind of brotherhood, too. I really appreciate their trust and friendship and I was deeply moved. During the shoot, I would adjust the script to reflect their real-life relationships: the three of them always banter whenever they meet up."
For film buffs well versed in Hong Kong's 'Heroic Bloodshed' movies of the late 1980s and early '90s, the acting trio's chemistry won't be the only thing to catch the eye. John Woo enthusiasts should brace themselves for a severe bout of déjà vu during The White Storm's escalating melodrama: a variety of scenes and shots have been lifted from such titles as The Killer, Bullet in the Head, and the A Better Tomorrow trilogy.
"I'm very honest about the fact that I re-watched A Better Tomorrow many times when I shot this movie. I wanted to find its spirit," Chan says. "It's true that John Woo's heroic bloodshed movies from the 1980s have had a big impact on us. When I became a director myself, I wanted to try and make at least one. I've made a lot of action movies now, but I've never done a heroic bloodshed movie before. When I look at my three protagonists, I think of A Better Tomorrow."
The director gives me permission to describe his film as a "pastiche of genre classics".
"Technically we might have referenced A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head, City on Fire, The Mission and so on," he says. "I must have a very clear impression of these classics in my mind, because I must make sure I'm not in their shadows. Only then will I be able to establish my style. The most important question is whether Benny Chan can establish his own style."
The White Storm might be appreciated for overblown emotions that would not be out of place in a Shakespearean tragedy. There are some outrageous and borderline amusing plot turns that involve everything from a transsexual romantic interest, unblinking self-mutilation, and a pit of crocodiles, too. Laughter occasionally broke out at the premiere screening, but Chan denies his film is a "black comedy".
"There's a Chinese saying that real life is sometimes more dramatic than drama," he says. "It's very important that the audience find it credible. The movie may be too dramatic, but if you think back to the story, you'll believe that it can happen. I believe it, too."
The White Storm opens on December 5