Chinese language cinema

Film review: Wild City - action auteur Ringo Lam returns

Release of director's first full-length feature in 12 years, intended as final part of a thematic trilogy alongside City on Fire and 1997's Full Alert, is a chance to evaluate Lam's contribution to Hong Kong cinema

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 1:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 11:24pm

While it had long been one of Hong Kong film buffs' pastimes to pine for a new Ringo Lam Ling-tung movie, few knew what to expect from the man behind such genre classics as City on Fire and Prison on Fire (1987). His segment in the triptych Triangle (2007) might have looked promising, but several quiet years have since passed and hopes have been fading.

However, with this week's Hong Kong release of Wild City — Lam's first full-length feature since 2003's straight-to-video Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, In Hell — it is surely an opportune moment to re-evaluate the writer-director's relevance.

Conceived by Lam as the final part of a thematic trilogy alongside City on Fire and 1997's Full Alert, the film appears to derive its title from a hackneyed observation, made during an opening voiceover by the story's protagonist, T-Man (Louis Koo Tin-lok), as he looks vacantly at a busy crossing: Money is the one issue that contaminates people's dreams, conscience and sense of justice.

Though theoretically valid, this age-old, anti-capitalist conundrum does little to illuminate some of the murky motivations piloting Lam's characters into the increasingly reckless chaos at the centre of Wild City, a technically accomplished but woodenly scripted crime thriller set in Hong Kong's crowded cityscape.

The former cop T-Man and his hot-headed taxi-driving stepbrother Chung (Shawn Yue Man-lok) are both haunted by past moral compromises, thus it's hard to understand the extreme risks they take to protect Yun (Tong Liya), a beautiful patron who gets drunk in T-Man's bar next to a stolen suitcase of dirty cash.

From there, the film spins an intricate web of deceit, bribery and murderous designs that suck in the siblings' mother (Yuen Qiu), Yun's corrupt lawyer ex-boyfriend (Michael Tse Tin-wah), a young tycoon with triad connections (Ma Yuke), and a close-knit Taiwanese gangster squad fronted by Blackie (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan), whose hostile nature is depicted in an early scene of him chopping a newspaper editor.

The fight scenes — whether with fists, knives or guns — are staged in the filmmaker's typically professional fashion, and the thrilling car chases in populated areas flaunt a blissful ignorance of civilian casualties. In an overzealous move to rub his message in, Lam's symphony of violence culminates in the phony image of a stray bullet smashing a Themis statue's scales of justice.

Then again, it's an open secret that Lam's hiatus from directing was due partly to his reluctance to adapt to the now-prevalent Hong Kong-mainland co-productions. If Wild City's awkwardly emphatic moral statements were meant as his litmus test of China's censorship standards, a true return of Lam's brand of downbeat crime thrillers could yet be in the offing.

Wild City opens on August 20