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NYAFF 2015, Day 2: Hong Kong Action, Then and Now, With City on Fire and Cold War

By  · Published on June 27th, 2015

The New York Asian Film Festival returns for a 14th year showcasing an exciting and eclectic mix of movies from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, China and Malaysia. This year brings a total of 54 feature films including two world premieres and three international premieres, and while I’m once again unfortunately unable to experience the fest on the ground in NYC I’m excited to cover as much as I can remotely.

Day two of the festival features three films, Hong Kong’s City on Fire and Cold War and South Korea’s Empire of Lust.

NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

When an undercover cop is stabbed to death by a quartet of violent thieves his police superiors move fast to slip another officer into their midst. The man they choose, Ko Chow (Chow Yun-fat), is a cop who’s been burned before on the undercover beat and wants no part of the new assignment. His hand is forced though, and soon he finds himself living and breathing the criminal life again. He also finds himself befriending Fu (Danny Lee), one of crooks, and as their friendship grows – and Ko finds himself hunted by a police unit indifferent to his assignment – his loyalty soon becomes dangerously malleable.

1987’s City on Fire wasn’t Ringo Lam’s first film as director, but it was both his first serious action film and his first notable hit. It’s easy to see the attraction for audiences too thanks to a mix of gritty action, high drama and another charismatic turn by Chow. Unfortunately though there’s also a lot of filler.

The most evident story line that crosses into extraneous territory is Ko’s relationship troubles. His girlfriend is threatening to leave him for another man due to his inattention, but that one-note subplot is dragged out through several scenes. Their mutual affection is lacking, even by Hong Kong action movie standards, and we can’t help but be completely disinterested. Time is better spent developing the mutual respect and friendship between Ko and Fu, although more time is needed for viewers to accept some of Ko’s actions in the third act.

Chow has fun with the lead role, and it’s refreshing seeing him take on a looser, less cool character than has became his norm after films like The Killer and Hard Boiled. At times though he feels a bit too laid back and carefree. The shift from his early goofiness to the later seriousness is rocky, but the action serves as a suitable distraction.

The action beats – from their choreography to cinematography (via Andrew Lau, who later went on to his own successful directing career with the likes of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen) – work to create and hold an engaging atmosphere. We get a pair of really solid foot chases as well as a car chase set to “Joy to the World” (Shane Black must love this film), and the final shootout manages some stylish thrills.

That final shootout – the whole third act really – does of course bear some very clear similarities to Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut, Reservoir Dogs. Lam tells the story without having to play with chronology though.

Cold War actually played NYAFF 2013, but they’re showing it again as part of their Hong Kong Panorama so I’m re-posting my original thoughts here.

An explosion at a Hong Kong movie theater puts the entire city on edge, but it also creates a clash of wills at the highest levels of the police department. With the commissioner out of the country on official business his two deputies step up with differing plans of attack, and things get even worse when an entire van full of police officers are abducted by unknown bad guys.

MB Lee (Tony Leung Kar-fai) is old school through and through and favors an immediate and aggressive response, while Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) prefers negotiation in order to secure the safety of his officers and Hong Kong’s citizens. Complicating things further is the realization that Lee’s son is among the kidnapped leading to revelations, intrigue and some incredibly dirty office politics.

Writers/directors Longman Leung and Sunny Luk are clearly aiming for an Infernal Affairs vibe here both intensity-wise and commercially, but while the latter goal came to fruition thanks to boffo box office and awards acclaim the film itself doesn’t work as well. The two leads come across more as caricatures than fully realized characters leaving their face-offs feeling a bit too artificial and overly dramatic. That immense seriousness is found throughout the film as it asks viewers to get worked up by intense montages of cops looking at whiteboards and waving their hands in the air.

None of this stops the film from finding and executing some entertaining and electric set pieces, but they’re few and far between until the third act. The final twenty minutes offer up some fun gunplay and fireworks, and while they’re hurt slightly by obvious CGI it remains the movie’s high point.

Action and drama aside there is an interesting subtext here about Hong Kong’s relationship with China that for better or worse is presented without a heavy hand. It’s definitely interesting, and as the film ends with the expectation of a sequel (and possible franchise) it’s something that may be explored more in the future.

NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.