Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hong Kong International Film Festival Spotlight: "Beast Cops" Reflects on the Human Condition

Gordon Chan, right, director of Beast Cops at HKIFF
 During the 41st annual Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) held his past April, several films were shown as part of a series called "Paradigm Shift: Post-97 Hong Kong Cinema." The late 90s were an important crossroads for filmmakers post-handover, when Britain officially transferred power of Hong Kong over to the People's Republic of China and ushered in a new era of cinema focusing on local culture and history. I was lucky enough to see Beast Cops on the big screen and speak briefly to one of its directors, Gordon Chan, who also wrote and directed Fist of Legend with Jet Li, another of my personal favorites. A thoughtful dramedy about the human condition cleverly packaged as a cop thriller took home Best Picture and Best Director (Gordon Chan and Dante Lam) in the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1999.

The disheveled trio of ordinary heroes

For someone living in Hong Kong, it was an unexpected delight to recognize many of the scenes that were filmed in my neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui (pronounced Jim-Sa-Joy) on Kowloon island. What elevates this film from a boilerplate cop drama into a thoughtful commentary about human existence is a script that combines light-hearted humor with philosophical musings about life and love, and how even the most flawed of characters can be a true hero.

"I wanted this film to be, ultimately, hopeful," said Chan after the screening, who was kind enough to answer a few burning questions of mine. "The studios wanted a comedy, but I wanted it to be more than that - a reflection on the human experience."

The story centers around Tung (Anthony Wong), a disheveled, out of shape street cop with dubious morals. He mostly cares about reeling in a paycheck and staying on the good side of gang leader Fai, known as "Big Brother." However, circumstances change when Big Brother goes on the run after a hit on a business rival goes wrong, and puts his trust in Tung to keep his territory on the up and up. To make matters worse, Tung finds himself having to show his new boss, fresh-faced Michael Cheung (Michael Wong) the ropes of the neighborhood without implicating himself. Worlds begin to collide as Cheung falls hard for Big Brother's abandoned girlfriend Yoyo (Kathy Chow), a hard-as-nails madame, and their relationship quickly becomes exclusive. Meanwhile, Pushy Pin (Patrick Tam), one of Big Brother's underlings, attempts to move up in the ranks, taking advantage of his old boss's absence.

Mr. Chan's autograph!
While the high-octane action sequences are visceral and well-timed, much of the film centers around Tung and Cheung facing the challenges of daily urban life - finding an affordable place to live (no easy task in this city), and dealing with the comings and goings of unscrupulous roommates, particularly Skinny Sam (Sam Lee), Tung's sex-addicted colleague; the travails of relationships. The cuts from one scene to the next are sudden at times, lending itself to uneven pacing, but not to such a high degree as to take away from the overall enjoyment of the storyline.

It is in the quiet moments where the story holds its true power. The desperation on the face of Tung when the married woman he has been having an affair with tells him she is going back to her old life without him, stating she doesn't love him. "But I love you," he mutters softly as she slinks back into the night, and the shadows of the evening fall around him like a curtain addressing the end of a final act.The profound sadness on Skinny Sam's face when his presumed date shows up with her husband, and he motors away with the bouquet of flowers still attached to the backseat.

The climactic, bloody brawl finale between Tung and Pushy Pin is satisfying on a raw, primal level as well as from a cinematography standpoint. Instead of the buff, young Cheung taking down the crime boss, Chan chooses to have the every-man do it because it has been his responsibility from the beginning. Tung is not superhuman - far from it - and the audience feels empathy as he psyches himself up for the confrontation in his car with the aid of alcohol and some dubious-looking pills. The fight is shot from a variety of standpoints; through broken fluorescent lights, down dingy alleyways, through the blurred vision of our unlikely hero. Knives are brandished, blood flows, and inwardly I found myself cheering for Tung as this washed up cop finds the true grit inside to put an end to this cycle of crime once and for all.

SPOILER ALERT: Chan shared with me that Tung was originally supposed to die, but he felt that would've changed the tenor of the movie completely, which I agree with. "I wanted to send a message of hope," he said. Perhaps hope not only for the characters in his story, but for the city of Hong Kong.


Jackaroo sez: At its essence, Beast Cops is a story of highly flawed characters that ultimately see the best potential in themselves and in one another. While the pacing is uneven at times, the film's payoff in the final scene more than makes up for any of its minor inadequacies.


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