I am cynical when it comes to Hong Kong and Taiwanese films because they rarely live up to expectations, but word of mouth got me interested in Cold War, a big-budget effort that has been promoted as “the best Hong Kong movie in the last 10 years.”
I was warned before watching Cold War that while I cannot compare it to first class Hollywood productions, it’s pretty good “for a Hong Kong movie.” That’s pretty much my assessment of the movie too.
The title of the movie refers to the code name given to a police operation after a busy shopping district explodes and a van carrying five officers and weapons suddenly goes missing. One of the officers happens to be the son of the deputy commissioner of police (Tony Leung), currently filling in as acting commissioner.
The incident escalates tensions in an already tense Hong Kong police department, which has been eager to promote the region as the “safest city in Asia.” There are internal power plays between Leung’s character, who is in charge of the “operations” side of things, and the character played by Aaron Kwok, the deputy commissioner on the “management” side of the department. Both men apparently want to solve the case, but at the same time they are jostling for the head job as the commissioner is set to retire.
There’s more to the story than that, which makes the film sound more complicated than it really is. I have a feeling it’s intentional. The truth is, Cold War has a rather standard plot that takes a few pages out of another crafty and highly successful Hong Kong film franchise, Infernal Affairs (remade into the Oscar-winning The Departed).
The strengths of the film lie in the interesting power play between the two leads and the twists and turns in the evolving plot, although I can’t say they weren’t predictable. The action sequences are well-done and realistic, although some of the special effects could have been a lot more polished.
Directors/co-writers Sunny Luk and Longman Leung have a certain visual style that borrows from Hollywood but retains a Hong Kong flavor, which is nice, but they do have a tendency to over-sensationalize things. We are regularly made to feel or expect that a certain scene, incident or character is supposed to have a particular significance, only to find out later that it meant nothing, or that the character was only minor and would never be seen again for the rest of the movie.
One of the introductory scenes exemplifies this perfectly. We see a half-naked girl in her underwear walking to a fridge to get a drink (with a particular focus on her swinging backside) when armed police bust in and forces what looks like a cup of faeces into her sleeping boyfriend’s mouth. It’s a provocative scene that raises a lot of questions, but it turns out that the guy was actually just a police IT expert who forgot to answer his phone (making what just happened seem extremely over the top). We don’t get to see the girl again, and the guy disappears after a couple of scenes later, making me wonder what the point of the whole thing was other than to make a big deal out of nothing.
This happens a lot, albeit mostly at the beginning. A lot of characters are given solid introductions (I presume because they are all considered “stars” in the industry), but apart from the two leads, we don’t get any development or insight into any of them. They come and go, in what are essentially cameo roles, but it feel as though they had their roles cut substantially in the editing room. I’d like to think the directors were trying to throw audiences off intentionally but I think that would be giving them too much credit.
The performances of Kwok and Leung are very strong, and carry the film a long way. The most important supporting character, an anti-corruption officer played by Cantopop singer Aarif Rahman, is passable, though his voice is really irritating, while the lead female role given to Charlie Yeung was botched because Yeung can’t act (and you don’t have to understand Cantonese to see that).
So I highly doubt Cold War is the best Hong Kong movie of the last decade as it boldly proclaims, but despite the flaws and rough edges it does have some commendable qualities, with occasional moments of tension, excitement and intrigue. The ending suggests that there will be at least one sequel to come, and while I might eventually watch it I think it will most probably be on DVD.
3 stars out of 5