Cold War

Hong Kong (2012) Dirs. Lok Man Leung & Sunny Luk

In what was normally considered Asia’s safest city, Hong Kong Police are stunned by the abduction of an Emergency Unit van containing five highly skilled police officers by a terrorist group at the same time a huge explosion rocks Mongkok. It is soon apparent that the terrorists have insider knowledge of how the police work making them a deadly threat.

With the commissioner away on international business two vice commissioners vying for promotion, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) and M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka Fai) take charge of the rescue operation “Cold War”, both employing wildly different yet equally counterproductive methods that incurs an investigation from Internal Affairs.

This first time directing effort from long time assistant directors Lok Man Leung and Sunny Luk cleaned up at the 32nd Hong Kong Awards claiming practically all the top prizes, including best film, actor, director and screenplay. It helps that a top flight cast was on hand to carry the load, along with some guest appearances from the equally notable names like Andy Lau in what is essentially a film of two distinct halves.

The above summary covers the first half of the film, a briskly paced and tense game of one-upmanship between the two ambitious cops with differing philosophies, under pressure from the terrorists’ ransom demands. The older Lee is reckless and reactionary, believing charging in like a bull at a gate with all guns blazing is the only way – presumably due to one of the hostages being his son Joe (Eddie Peng) – while the younger Lau is more thoughtful and logical, an interesting role reversal of the age old “head vs heart” dichotomy.

When Lee’s methods cause more trouble than harm a frustrated Lau finds a way to usurp control from his senior counterpart, causing immense friction between the two parties. These confrontations provide the film with some of the most dramatic and intense scenes, with both Kwok and Leung delivering strong and effective performances. Equally intense is the ransom hand over scene that closes the first half, a well constructed and edge of the seat example of why Hong Kong cinema is well renowned for its action crime dramas.

There is a distinct change of pace following this with the arrival of cocky ICAC investigator Billy Cheung (Aarif Rahman aka Aarif Lee) who believes that there is an informer within the force and the actions of both Lee and Lau and their subordinates suggest there may be a connection between one of them. The energy level dips a little and the action is replaced by a lot of chat that sees the script begin to trip over itself, losing its tautness in the process as the revelations come thick and fast.

Kwok and Leung remain on top form and Rahman lifts his game to meet them but the script starts to get a little too busy in trying to wrap things up, throwing in a number of convenient twists and too many coincidental developments.

It’s little things such as the actions of the subordinates (Gordon Lam and Chin Ka-lok) that are never mentioned or hinted at then suddenly are brought up during the investigation only have major implications. Pulling things out of thin air to fill in blanks that haven’t been left for the viewer to pick up on doesn’t add surprise to the story, it only makes it confusing.

It seems writers and Leung and Luk had an ending in mind but weren’t quite sure how to get there so they overloaded on the miniature to make it seem more convoluted than it actually needed to be. However, to their credit, they leave things on a nice cliffhanging coda which suggests a sequel is forthcoming, and judging by the film’s success, it is almost assured to happen.

While the characters of Lau and Lee are clearly defined, what is left ambiguous is their relationship and why they are so competitive. Is it because Lau earned his spot through the administration side of the force and for keeping the accounts in order, while Lee rose through the ranks from constable, constantly being on the front line and not behind a desk? While mentioned this is never fully explored and had the film stuck to the original kidnap plot this could have made for an intriguing sub story to follow.

As it is though, both are fascinating characters and both Kwok and Leung work wonders in bringing them to life with such conviction. Despite a strong support cast, most of whom are largely limited to smaller and often insignificant roles, once can’t be blamed for thinking this was a two man show; even the brief presence of Andy Lau as the awkward Secretary of Security doesn’t infringe on their spotlight.

Technically the film is very slick and well shot. The camerawork is spot on and the visuals are nothing less than gleaming, even in the darker and grittier moments. The opening aerial shots over the skyscrapers of Mongkok are stunning and Hong Kong overall is given the sort of photographic treatment travelogues would die to achieve. While action scenes are few and far between they are handled with the same adroit adeptness and flair for drama one comes to expect from Hong Kong cinema.

Cold War clearly has high hopes of being the next Infernal Affairs, which is a lofty ambition for any film, and while those ambitions aren’t reached, this is far from a let down. A tighter script with more concentration on the various plot details is the obvious area in need of improvement but overall, this is a competent and solid enough entry into the Hong Kong crime thriller genre.