It has been a bad year for Hong Kong films (or Chinese cinema, for the matter). The last decent HK film I saw was PROTEGE, way back in February. Since then, all we got were clunker forgettable romantic comedies and silly star vehicles for talentless idols. And then, there's also the repulsively pretentious MING MING.
Hopes were high for EYE IN THE SKY, a Milkyway Image film produced but not directed by my hero Johnnie To. This film is the directorial debut of Yau Hoi Nam, longtime Milkyway Image screenwriter and Johnnie To collaborator. He was the one who wrote (or co-wrote) the smash hit romantic comedy NEEDING YOU... (2000), badass crime dramas like HERO NEVER DIES (1998) and THE MISSION (1999), award-winners like RUNNING ON KARMA (2003), PTU (2003) and the two ELECTION films (2005 and 2006).
The two reviews I read about this film, one at LoveHKfilm and one by Yvonne are pretty positive, obviously this will not reach the dizzying heights of Johnnie To's films, but I know it's going to be a solid film.
I was glad that I didn't walk out of the cinema disappointed. EYE IN THE SKY is a good film, definitely one of the best HK films of the year. That's not saying much, since the only other 'good' HK film is PROTEGE. But this film does bring back memories of earlier Hong Kong crime thrillers like EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED, which were more about, er, crimes and thrills. It isn't bogged down by character backstory, there are no attempts to create moral ambiguity by making the villains more sympathetic, everything is black and white, it's a simple cat and mouse movie, it's all about seeing whether the cops can catch the robbers.
In this case, the bad guys are a bunch of bank robbers led by Shan (supremely suave and charismatic Tony Leung Ka Fai), while the good guys are the Criminal Intelligence Bureau (CIB), the surveillance branch of the Hong Kong Police led by Wong Man-chin, codenamed Dog Head (Simon Yam, uglified and fatter than he usually looks). The central character of this film is actually Bo, codenamed Piggy, a newbie cop (played by former Miss Hong Kong Kate Tsui) who has just joined the unit and is learning the ropes from Dog Head. Thanks to Bo, we get to learn how this secretive unit actually works via Dog Head's explanations.
The cop procedures and philosophy these surveillance officers adhere to are shown in detail, and they are very interesting (and educational... unless the director has taken some creative liberties). One has to learn how to put their human compassion aside, like watching someone beaten up and not do anything because it will blow your cover. Or doing whatever it takes to follow a suspect, even if your own colleague is mortally wounded and needs assistance. These are the numerous dilemmas Bo is forced to undergo as she learns to be a surveillance officer. And also, a surveillance officer does not get into action-hero mode like their heroic counterparts, the CID or the SWAT team. Just do their duties by finding out the positions of the baddies, then take a step back as the 'action heroes' do the rest.
Simple and modest in scope, this film's messages and karmic themes are really clear. The film's title, EYE IN THE SKY, is the literal meaning of the word 'surveillance' in French. But in Chinese, the all-seeing 'eye in the sky' is related to karma, how one can never escape from the cycle of 'cause' and 'effect'. This can't be any clearer as everything ties up neatly towards the end, based more on luck and coincidences instead of the actual abilities of the SU members.
All these years of working with Johnnie To (whom he refers to as 'sifu', as in master or mentor) have given Yau Hoi Nam an assured and subdued directing style. He doesn't try to mimic Johnnie To, going more for quicker cuts, tighter shots and more camera movements (lots of handheld shots, something very rare in actual Johnnie To's films). The acting of the cast, mostly made up of Milkway Image regulars like Maggie Siu (funny as the sophisticated-looking but potty-mouthed commanding officer) Lam Suet (the constantly eating lackey of Shan's, who doesn't utter more than five words in the film) and Eddie Cheung (finally in a non-stuttering role after the two Election movies and Exiled!) is top-notch.
The performances from the 3 actors are great. Simon Yam plays Dog Head more like a kind uncle than the 'cranky middle-aged cops' you're used to seeing. Tony Leung Ka Fai's Shan could've been a 1-dimensional villain if it isn't played by him. Shan is dangerously unpredictable, we see him playing Sudoku a lot while wearing reading glasses to pass his time, and becoming murderously violent when necessary.
And Kate Tsui is surprisingly good (I don't really expect much from film debuts of former pageant winners), handling her emotional scenes effectively and immediately showing more talent than, say, a Cookies member. Guess getting her share of training from TVB does help her a lot.
So yeap, go watch EYE IN THE SKY, it might restore your faith in Hong Kong cinema.
EYE IN THE SKY teaser