Sunday, April 17, 2011

Beyond Hypothermia with Wu Chien-Lin

The gorgeous Wu Chien-Lin plays Cheng a skilled and highly paid killer. Patrick Leung’s camera loves her; she is strikingly framed and often bathed in a blue or green light that makes her even more ethereally compelling. In addition to her looks Cheng has virtues that are important for success in a number of fields. She is patient, resourceful, ruthless and single-minded when carrying out a mission. She ignores physical discomfort, changes tactics when necessary, doesn’t get distracted from accomplishing her objective when circumstances change and deals with obstacles as they occur. She is deadly with a number of firearms, equally effective at ranges from 500 meters to point blank and has no compunction against killing witnesses. As a killer she as good as can be but as a heroine of a melodrama Cheng is a cipher, which is the main problem with “Beyond Hypothermia”, there is no moral center, no person essential to the action of the film with whom the audience can empathize. Cheng doesn’t know her own history, only that she was born in Cambodia and somehow escaped that blood soaked land for Hong Kong. The audience doesn’t know her history either but from the moment that she very calmly executes the young daughter of a target we think there is nothing in her background, however horrible, that could justify such complete depravity.

There is the slightest bit of ambiguity in that scene. We see Cheng from the point of view of the toddler, pointing her pistol directly at the camera, holding for a moment, and then pulling the trigger. In each of her other hits we see the bullet hitting home—this is the first and possibly only time where impact of the bullet occurs off screen. For example immediately before this sequence with the child Cheng killed the kid’s gang boss father, shooting him with the barrel of the pistol against the back of his head. It is possible to imagine that Cheng decided not to kill the little girl but there isn’t much evidence for it.

Her opponent is Chui, the chief bodyguard and enforcer for Korean gangster Mr. Pak. While he is clearly not as good at his job as Cheng is at hers—she kills Mr. Pak and then escapes in a very well done chase on foot through the streets and stores of Seoul—Chui is also very deadly. He kills an extraordinarily large number of people as he comes closer and closer to Cheng, first learning the name of the Hong Kong triad that sponsored the assassination, and then further discovering Sister Mei, Cheng’s agent,. His method is simple and direct. He wields two pistols and never misses with either hand. While Cheng’s kills are precise and well planned, his are chaotic and dependent on the bad judgment or poor shooting of his targets.

While there are some formal parallels with movies of John Woo—“A Better Tomorrow” and its sequel come to mind readily—neither Cheng nor Chui have the righteous authority and moral weight of Mark Gor or Tequila Yeun. There is no heroism in the bloodshed of “Beyond Hypothermia”.

There is, however, a lot of stylized good looking filmmaking. While Cheng often moves in a universe of washed out blue or green, Long, her unlikely and tenuous connection to the world beyond killing, is just as often lit and shot with natural looking light. He runs a down-market noodle stand where she goes to take part in the simple rituals and routines of everyday life compared with the otherworldly intensity of murder for hire. After each killing Cheng stops at Long's food stand for burning hot plain noodles. She is always dressed fashionably; he dresses like a harried cook/waiter trying to serve enough lunches to stay in business for another month. She doesn’t talk with anyone; he is a favorite with the all the locals, especially the kids. Long is Lau Ching-Wan in all his rumpled, earthy glory, a former triad who decided to go straight, a nice guy always ready with a free meal for a hungry beggar but tough enough to be the only business in the area who isn’t paying protection.

He is in love and has been from the first time he saw Cheng—his “Pretty Ghost”. As the maniacal Chiu gets closer to Cheng, Long doesn’t flinch even when the bullets begin to fly in earnest. One hesitates to say that this is a perfect role for Lau Ching-Wan since this incredibly gifted actor seems able to make any role his own, but he is just about perfect here.

Shirley Wong Qui-Lee as Sister Mei is simply evil personified. She is as bad as Bill Sykes or Iago but without the animal vitality or nobility of those literary creations. She controls Cheng, acting as her booker and cut-out, insuring that the fees are paid and the logistics are sound. Most importantly she keeps Cheng wandering in an existential wilderness without an identity, a history or even a memory of her childhood. Her control of Cheng is slipping a bit, although she doesn’t know that it is because of Cheng’s newly found interest in Long. Cheng tells her that she would like to be with a man, not only as a lover but as a friend and companion—although she qualifies her desire and underlines once again just how amoral she is by saying that as soon as he started to suspect she was an assassin she would kill him.

The homoerotic byplay between Sister Mei and Cheng isn't really expected so both Cheng and the audience are shocked when Sister Mei slips her hand under Cheng's blouse while telling her that a relationship simply can’t happen. We aren't sure if there is a Sapphic aspect to the relationship or if Sister Mei is trying to strengthen her hold on Cheng by claiming her body.

One brief scene is almost heartbreaking in its poignancy. For the first time Cheng relaxes and really opens up while taking Polaroids of herself. She poses, smiles, looks over a shoulder at the camera, basically acting like a young woman pleased with the way she looks (and feels) and happy to have a record of it. She then selects on picture, dates it and hides it behind a picture of a Buddha statue on her desk and burns the rest of the photos.

One of the tools of her trade--a false passport.

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