Control (Kong cheng ji)
Hong Kong (2013) Dir. Kenneth Bi
Are people really so easily manipulated that they can be controlled like puppets? Threats are usually a good way of ensuring cooperation but quite often the victim can only take their tormentor’s word for it if contact is only via the phone. Kenneth Bi leaves his family drama oeuvre behind to explore this theme via this sci-fi thriller.
Set in a slightly futuristic world, Mark (Daniel Wu) is being pursued by a gang of thugs but fails to escape, is beaten up and taken to meet their boss, a man named Devil (Leon Dai). Mark is interrogated about the whereabouts of money belonging to Devil’s boss Tiger (Simon Yam), who shows up to add further pressure to make Mark talk.
Eventually he cracks and begins to relate an elaborate tale about a mystery man who blackmails Mark after he gives false evidence in a court case against his employer, and forces him into committing a number of crimes via telephone, whilst being able to see and know his every move.
When released in 2013, Control was boldly proclaimed as a game changer for Hong Kong cinema by embracing CGI technology to create a visually immersive world with the actors working completely against green screen. This may well be true and the attempts are generally admirably when it remembers it is supposed to be a dystopian sci-fi noir, which is disappointingly infrequent.
For all the tantalising promise of the opening aerial shots of a technologically advanced metropolis, this illusion of a Chinese Blade Runner is spoiled the moment we get our first glance of human presence, two people shown rushing down a decidedly normal looking backstreet alley towards a regular, everyday, run-of-the-mill 21st century taxi.
It is never actually disclosed how far into the future this story is set which may explain the passing integration of extravagant technology with the world as it is today. No flying cars, teleport systems, laser guns or even video phones; the closest thing to this are the tiny mobile phones which projects a 3D holographic image of the caller where an icon sits on current Smartphones.
This makes quite a mockery of the aforementioned boast of being paradigm changing, when the result is (ironically) superficial but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves – as a crime thriller this is actually a riveting, well-constructed yarn. The premise of being controlled over the phone is hardly new – the 2006 Thai film 13 Beloved is one example – but the future setting at least offers some leeway when suspending our disbelief about how Mark is monitored at all times.
Providing a poignant backstory to Mark’s woes, it is immediately established that he is looking to finance a move from a squalid hospital to a luxury care home for his ailing mother Jen (Kara Hui). In order to make some quick money, insurance salesman Mark is persuaded to perjure himself in court in exchange for a promotion and a handsome pay rise.
This done, Mark pays the deposit on the care home but then receives an anonymous phone call telling him his perjury hasn’t gone unnoticed and unless he complies with the caller’s instructions, he will be shopped. From here Mark is forced into a number of situations occurring on both sides of the law as he avails himself of a large sum of money on the caller’s behalf.
During this process Mark is reunited with his ex-girlfriend Jessica (Yao Chen), learning of a young son he didn’t know he had, used to ensure Jessica is compliant in this mission. As the story continues, the true scope of the caller’s purview is revealed in other people under his invisible thumb, all with their own reasons to be targets for blackmail and manipulation, subtly interlinked with one another.
As convoluted as this may sound, it is fairly straightforward and the script shows no intention of complicating matters with implied or obfuscated distractions to keep us guessing – that is until the inspired twist in the final act sets the wheels in motion for a second story that can be recounted much more briefly since the constituent elements are already in place.
Given the 92-minute run time, things rarely pause for breath once the main flashback story begins and surprisingly, it is told rather comprehensively considering its depth and reliance on holding various threads together. The only grumble is how Mark, and indeed some of the other victims, is able to adapt emotionally and morally to the whims of the caller so easily, which could have been explored further with a little more time.
Similarly the main villains Tiger and Devil aren’t given much depth beyond their inherent criminal egos, the only established features being Devil’s calm, sharp suited appearance while Tiger is demonstrably maniacal and unpredictable. It is unusual to see Simon Yam in such a gregarious role but it shows he can do more than his trademark stoicism, in this case covered by Leon Dai.
Daniel Wu leads the charge as the main star and indeed is featured in practically every scene; his clean cut looks working in his favour in expressing the torment and pressure Mark feels in obeying the caller. Veteran Kara Hui has a relatively small role but her presence transcends the gravitas she is expected to bring.
With a modest film catalogue consisting mostly of light family dramas, Kenneth Bi has made quite the jump to the crime thriller, yet doesn’t appear to have been overwhelmed by this. The pace is brisk and consistent, the hallmarks of the genre are present, and the story is taut and eventful. It is not entirely without lapses of logic and incredulity, but it entertains and that is the most important thing.
Control’s biggest handicap is in being promoted as a revolutionary sci-fi flick when this barely plays into it and offers little that is truly original. It could just as easily have been set in 2013 and still would work just fine.