Thursday, May 7, 2009

Infernal Mission

No one ever sets out to make a bad movie although in hindsight one can see that the combination of creative people assembled for a project seems to doom if from the beginning. Sometimes, though, a movie turns out better than anyone might think it could. Infernal Mission is such a film.

Infernal Mission has many of the elements of a dull timewaster: an inexperienced writer and director; generic, barely dressed sets; by the numbers cinematography and a script that seems to be a cheap copy of a much better movie. It is visually uninteresting and dramatically dull. However the sum is greater than its generally ordinary parts or perhaps some of the parts shine are much brighter than one would expect. Even though the war room for the elite anti-drug squad looks like the word processing pool of a small accounting office, the gun fights are (with a couple of notable exceptions) perfunctory and the plot is pushed forward by people finding clues lying around on desks, it is still an effective police drama with decently developed characters, believable conflict and hidden agendas that are hinted at and only slowly revealed.

Teresa Mak plays Mak Ka Mei, the police cadet recruited to be a mole in the organization of a drug kingpin. She is beautiful as always, playing very tough when she needs to be, tender when necessary and makes it clear that she is always looking over her shoulder. The difficulties her character encounters, a female spy in the heart of a criminal organization are only hinted at—her main tool for getting information on drug deal is sex, since she had to hide her skills gunplay and strong arm tactics . Her status as both an insider, being present when huge deals are made, and as an outsider, never completely trusted are clear from the beginning and serve as one of the hinges for conflict. The audience likes her and wants her to succeed.

Infernal Mission is the only film credit for director Chan Man-Leun and screenwriter Chung Bond. However Cha Cheun Lee, its producer, has directed eighteen Hong Kong films, most of them romantic comedies or Category III not terribly hard-core pornography. He has been an actor, producer and writer--typical (or at least not untypical) for someone far below the top rank of Hong Kong film who wants to work in the business. I assume, based on nothing other than Cha Cheun-Lee's experience and the almost invisible status of the director and writer that he was more respoonsible than anyone for what showed up onscreen.

In addition to Teresa Mak the cast features Ruby Wong Cheuk-Ling, Lam Suet and Tony Ho Wah-Chiu. Ruby Wong, the mole in the police department, is a very attractive and talented actress who has done comedy for Ringo Lam and police dramas for Johnny To. She had a terrible hairdo/wig which actually distracted the audience from her performance, with them wondering why her hair was covering her face instead of the qualities she brought to her character. Tony Ho played the violent and erratic crime boss. His character was over the top for most of the movie and he brought it off with well. With 48 movies in 10 years--a lot for an actor in the post-handover world--he is a talented young pro. Lam Suet, as the police commander behind Teresa Mak's undercover operation, has always been perfect for any cop or hoodlum role.

The ensemble portrays the constant anxiety of both working undercover and being responsible for the operation. The script, which is based on, borrowed from or in homage to Infernal Affairs, keeps things hurtling along--no subplots, comic relief or stopping to think slow down the rush to the inevitable bloody showdown.

There weren't a lot of stunts--this is a buttoned up, low budget police drama--and the most dangerous thing that any of the actors did was smoke cigarettes. Teresa Mak had a quite a few scenes in which she smoked. She may not have had a nicotine habit when filming started but she must have before it finished.

Ruby Wong

Tony Ho and Lam Suet
Infernal Mission is available at a few online stores incuding HKFlix and YesAsia

The Hong Kong Movie Database page (registration may be required) is here HKMDB

Monday, May 4, 2009

Collectors and Film History

The history of Hong Kong film will never really be written although many have tried and others continue to try. duriandave, whose well researched and increasingly addictive blog is here is a great introduction to movies and popular culture generally in the Crown Colony and other parts of the Chinese diaspora. Another source is Silver Light:A Pictorial History of Hong Kong Cinema 1920-1970 by Paul Fonoroff whose reviews from a couple of decades after this book are discussed in a post below.

Foronoff makes it heartbreakingly clear that when it comes of the history of film in Hong Kong, it just isn't there. There are prints of four of the over 500 feature films produced in the pre-World War II era. In some cases the same problems that plagued some Hollywood classics prevailed--the prints themselves and the movies on them weren't considered important enough to store properly, so heat and humidity did its damage. There simply wasn't enough room in Hong Kong to warehouse films--Hong Kong has long been one of the most croweded and hemmed in places on earth. Without enough room to house its people there wasn't much outcry to find space for old movies. It wasn't until 1993 that the Hong Kong Film Archive was established. A problem not faced in other movie capitals occurred during the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945 when any movies that could be found were melted for their silver content.

Fonoroff discovered that the only way to write a history of the movie industry he loved was to acquire the source materials himself. In searches through old theaters in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Singapore and Malaysia he found the posters, lobby cards, handbills and magazines that he used for illustrations in Silver Light.

We are spoiled now. Everything is digital, its all indestructible strings of zeroes and ones that don't get thrown out, burned up or simply left behind when a cinema closes like so much of the this history already has. The difficulty for the fan, of course, is that the more movies you watch the more you want to see; the more you learn the more you realize you don't know. It can be frustrating to look at advertising material for films that no longer exist--and who wouldn't want to see a martial arts western from the 1940s, "Double Pistol Heroine", for example--but among the serious collectors, I imagine, there will always be one more place to look to uncover one more bit of Hong Kong fim history.