Shock Wave Tunnel (Chai dan zhuan jia)
China/Hong Kong (2017) Dir. Herman Yau
I’m not entirely sure why the UK release of this China/Hong Kong co-production needed the addendum of the word “Tunnel” to its original title of Shock Wave, but I suppose it’s better than some of the egregiously misleading title changes that have befouled many a Chinese film when it hits our shores – Lesbian Vampire Warriors I’m looking at you.
JS Cheung (Andy Lau), superintendent of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau (EOD) is working undercover as a member of the crime gang led by the similarly credentialed Peng Hong (Jiang Wu). The operation concludes following an ambitious bank robbery, during which Cheung’s betrayal of the gang leads to the arrest of Hong’s brother Biao (Wang Ziyi).
Seven years later, Hong has returned to Hong Kong, now calling himself Blast and begins a revenge campaign against Cheung and his colleagues responsible for Biao’s jailing. The centrepiece of this sees Hong cause a traffic blockage in the middle of the busy Cross-Harbour Tunnel, holding hundreds of people hostage. Blast then deigns only to speak to Cheung to meet his demands or he’ll kill the hostages.
Herman Yau has quite a varied resume as a writer and director, having taken a stab at practically every movie genre there is – horror, comedy, romance, historical, drama, martial arts and action thriller. It is the latter that concerns us here with Shock Wave, offering a balanced helping of both of these elements with a touch of romantic drama thrown in for good measure.
Not that this has much a bearing on the plot as a whole, as the entire female contingent is represented solely by divorcee teacher Carmen Li (Song Jia), assuming the obligatory role of love interest for Cheung, and one time bargaining tool for Blast in antagonising Cheung. In one scene, Carmen gets a cute line lamenting to Cheung “Girlfriends of superheroes never fare very well” ahead of breaking up with him and telegraphing her fate to the audience.
Character development traditionally isn’t a high priority in genre films like this so we are forced to take the journeys they go on at face value, also extending to the chief villain Hong/Blast. Revenge for his brother’s arrest is a natural motive for a deluded criminal to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting society, but given he waited seven years suggests Hong may not have been that bothered by this as he seems.
There is a secondary reason for Hong holding the city to hostage which is a less obvious and a little confusing – he wants the government to buy the Western Harbour Bridge from the tunnel’s greedy owner/operator Yim Kwok-wing (Liu Kai-chi) for the people of Hong Kong. Quite why someone hell bent on destruction would have make such a civic minded demand is against character but when Yim plays hardball because he has his shareholders to think of, Hong reverts to his true nature.
Yau and co-writer Erica Lee seem intent on overstuffing the plot to compensate for not building the characters more, this particular thread feeling shoehorned in specifically to add a little political spice to the story and mock capitalism (a clear mainland influence) but ultimately doesn’t impact the overall narrative that much.
However, it doesn’t really matter because the real meat of this film is found in the literal explosive action and detailing of the procedures the EOD adhere to in diffusing bombs. Whether it is a large unexploded relic from World War II just dug up or a complex device of modern design, plenty of nerve shredding mileage is to be had from watching the skilful but tense operations in progress.
But we must remember that we have a psychopath explosives expert facing off against a hero expert, and Hong doesn’t make things easy for Cheung. The apotheosis of this – aside from shooting freed hostages as they run – comes when an off duty cop (Babyjohn Choi) caught in the tunnel with his father and colleagues is released with a vest rigged to the gills with explosives that even Cheung can’t disarm in time.
Adhering to the maxim of “start as you mean to go on” Yau opens this film with the flashback sequence featuring a high octane multi-vehicle chase following the robbery, that will please fans of 80’s action flicks weaned on seeing cars colliding with each other and flying about the place, complete with craftily placed detonations to create further carnage.
Employing a blend of CGI and practical effects the explosions and shootouts that occur in the tunnel are every bit as spectacular as you might imagine, including the eponymous shock wave, which is a devastating sight to behold. The use of aerial drone camerawork allows for a range of perspectives captured in motion, adding an extra dynamic to the viewer’s immersion of the moment within the vat but crowded area of the tunnel.
While the characters are firmly entrenched in their immediate tropes and fulfilling functional roles, there is no denying that the cast do their best to disguise these creative shortcomings, and with the ever-reliable Andy Lau leading the way, they at least keep us engaged in their actions and plights. This is hardly a prestige role for Lau but he isn’t sleepwalking through it either, the same could be said for Jiang Wu as Hong – he may be a paper-thin villain but Wu makes him easily detestable.
Yau’s direction is fine tuned to make sure every aspect of the genre’s conventions are well attended to, keeping the romantic moments poignant and mushy, and the action scenes pumping with adrenaline. The gritty tension is created through the performances and tight editing, captured through busy, attentive camerawork deftly shifting between intimate claustrophobia and swooping epic scale shots.
Shock Wave Tunnel is one of those films where you know exactly what you are going to get from it and those expectations are met, delivered with aplomb and understanding of its role as bombastic popcorn entertainment.