AKA: Abduction, Retribution
Director: Law Wing Cheong
Writer: Chi Keung Fung
Producer: Johnnie To Kei Fung
Cast: Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Janice Man Wing San, Maggie Cheung Ho Yee, Richie Ren Yin Chi, Candy Lo Hau Yam, Charlie Cho Cha Lei
Running Time: 94 min.
Revenge has become a de facto theme for Asian films over the last decade, perhaps ever since 2003’s “Oldboy.” Johnnie To, the producer on “Punished,” even helmed a movie called “Vengeance” just a few years back. Sadly, despite its strong Milkway Image pedigree, “Punished” is not one of the better revenge movies I’ve seen lately. The film fails to live up to the promise of its initial set-up or the talents of principal actors like Anthony Wong and Richie Ren.
Anthony Wong plays a wealthy, cutthroat businessman whose drug-addicted daughter is kidnapped and held for ransom. Things go south, an outcome that is revealed during the first five minutes of the movie, and soon Wong’s right-hand man (Richie Ren) is dispatched to bring the perpetrators to justice. As Richie Ren does the dirty work, Anthony Wong struggles to decide if he really wants all that blood on his hands.
Somewhat like a Quentin Tarantino movie, “Punished” unfolds in a non-linear fashion. In this case, the fractured storytelling style doesn’t really add anything to the experience – but it thankfully doesn’t make the plot any harder to follow either. If anything, the non-chronological order feels like like it’s meant to distract from the fact that, visually, the film is rather drab and workman-like. Behind the camera, “Punished” filmmaker Law Wing-Cheong opts for a ‘point and shoot’ style, with absolutely zero directorial flourishes. Too bad when this is the kind of gritty revenge story that could have benefited from some interesting cinematography. Instead I spent more time distracted by Anthony Wong’s bad haircut.
The characters in “Punished” are blatantly unlikable, which I suppose is one risk the filmmakers took. Anthony Wong’s daughter may be a messed up druggie but Wong treats her and pretty much everyone else in his life like dirt. Wong’s younger wife seems to have her own agenda, as do most of his employees. Richie Ren’s is the one exception as the stoic and tightlipped bodyguard, but even his character is stained by a criminal record and seems to have no qualms about torturing people with a sledgehammer.
If you go into this movie expecting the choreographed action or extreme bloodletting of something like “Oldboy” or “I Saw the Devil,” you’re bound to be disappointed. “Punished” is light on hard-hitting violence and, even though an Action Director is listed in the credits, the one fight scene here feels perfunctory and uninspired. Besides the flat lighting, even the set design on the movie comes across as cheap; Anthony Wong is supposed to be a wealthy Hong Kong businessman but his living space looks like a cheesier version of the hotel at the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
A half-hearted Buddhist subplot sees Wong trying to let go of the physical realm and find peace after his daughter’s death, but this spiritual side-quest doesn’t achieve any actual changes in Anthony Wong’s character. Buddhist prayer beads aside, he’s still basically the same jerk at the end of the movie. I’ll give “Punished” credit for attempting to be a meditative reflection on the theme of revenge instead of just another ‘stab and shoot’ genre movie, but in the end the audience is the one who’s punished.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 5/10
Johnnie To returns to home field after the past two years spent on making romance-oriented movies. Here, he’s the producer and let one of his long-time students and frequent ADs (Law Wing-Cheong) take the task of helming the movie. And this time, they took the opportunity to subject the themes of kidnapping and ransom to envision familiarity in new angles.
First things first, I must say that this is possibly the most powerful movie to have been made from Milkyway Image to date. It’s clear to me that To wanted to make big changes with his new output, for which he has successfully accomplished. To and co attempted something new and daring here in that they hit the stride big-time in terms of reaching viewers emotionally through a story and its’ characters. It’s very seldom you get to sympathize with characters of this scale in Milkyway movies, due to To and co usually being in high favor of visualized and stylized storytelling. Punished changes that and marks a new era which may probably be made into a tradition from here on.
The movie is strictly story/character-driven without any need to excess the narrative. Apart from the main antagonist (whoever the actor is), whose intention behind the kidnapping and ransom he got and his decision to take someone’s life remained unclear and left his characterization less fleshed out, every other central character is well-written and given enough screen-time to clear their emotional states and further motivate their actions. There’s even hints of character development in other characters that are aren’t crucial to the story, such as the tycoon’s manager (Charlie Cho, most famous for portraying the annoying lawyer in Police Story 1 and 2) and the tycoon’s son (played by Anthony Wong’s real-life son, Wong Yat-Yat). But most importantly is the underlying message of everything which is impulsiveness and determination in people: it asks you what these can cause, how you can prevent things from happening, and whether or not it’s a good or bad thing. As we follow the currents of the tycoon (Anthony Wong), the bodyguard (Richie Ren), the tycoon’s daughter (Janice Man) and wife (Maggie Cheung Hoh-Yee), the bodyguard’s shady assistant (Candy Lo), and the kidnapper’s accomplices, you will see how all this is told and resolved. Overall, these instances show a significant makeover in choices being made to produce a Milkyway movie that I hope will continue in the future.
Two things stood out the most to me though and what makes Punished totally worth seeing. The first is the acting. Props to everyone that got casted in the movie but my attention was turned to Anthony Wong and Richie Ren. Ren is someone I came to admire in Breaking News and he has since grown into a fine actor in his own right. But I think it wasn’t until Accident that he started to show major improvements and here he keeps that up playing Wong’s loyal bodyguard who will do anything to get things done fast while keeping up with his own private life outside the job. But the icing of the cake is none other than Wong himself. I haven’t really been a fan of his roles in recent movies because I feel he always plays the same cool, calm character with very little variety of acting. But he seemed to really give insanely more effort in this movie than any other ones I’ve ever seen from him – here portraying a hot-headed character who goes through alot to decide what to do and what he will gain out of the messy situation – which shows in every single scene he appears in. Big bravura for both!
The second is the soundtrack. Punished marks a step further when it comes to the music composing (done by Guy Zerafa, Dave Klotz and Chung Chi-Wing) in Milkyway movies as well. Usually in Milkyway movies, the soundtracks consist of various instruments that wholeheartedly reflects the quirkiness/peculiars of To’s personal storytelling (the reason why I love the music in his work) but as far as conjugating the music within the emotional context of the story/characters it’s mostly non-existent because it was always about the beauty of the narrative. For Punished, To made sure that story/characters were main priority so he decided to use different instruments for more intensified and gripping effect. The music ends up somewhat conventional compared to other soundtracks but it’s highly serviceable and pays off having a new sound to it still and fitting perfectly in the movie’s dramatic scenes.
After seeing alot of changes and evolution with To and co in not just film styling but also them growing big balls of their favorite actors (first Lau Ching-Wan in Mad Detective, Simon Yam in Sparrow, now Anthony Wong in Punished), it’s really incredible to see that Hong Kong still got talented people who can produce great movies and keep the HK style of film-making away from declining.
DiP’s Rating: 10/10