Director: Ringo Lam
Writer: Ringo Lam
Cast: Louis Koo, Shawn Yue, Joseph Chang, Tong Liya, Jack Kao, Sam Lee, Philip Ng, Dave Wong, Simon Yam
Running Time: 100 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Not taking into consideration the segment he directed for 2007’s Triangle, it’s been 12 long years since Ringo Lam directed a Hong Kong movie. Look to when he last directed one of the crime thrillers that he built his reputation on, and you have to go back even further. So the announcement that Wild City was to see him returning both to Hong Kong filmmaking, and the crime thriller genre, was a big deal. Lam himself explained that the movie would round off what he saw as his ‘City Trilogy’, with the other titles being this very sites namesake, his 1987 classic City on Fire, and his 1997 production Full Alert. Like Park Chan-wook’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy,’ the movies are connected thematically, with Lam stating that the “films are all set in Hong Kong, and are about people who are lost in the city.”
Wild City of course represents a very different Hong Kong from both of its predecessors. City on Fire was made at a time when Hong Kong cinema was at its creative peak, with Full Alert being made in the year the territory was handed back to China from its 99 year lease to the UK. With the mainland emerging as a significant influence on box office success in recent years, these days Hong Kong movies are no longer simply targeted at local Hong Kong audiences, with the importance of appealing to China as a whole taking precedence.
The handover of Hong Kong back to China was also significant in another way though, which was that all movies made there now had to go through the process of passing the government censorship board. This led to many Hong Kong directors jumping ship to try their hand at working in Hollywood (Lam himself made 3 movies with Jean Claude Van Damme there), while others decided to switch to making period swordplay movies, due to the ease of which they passed the board. For directors like Lam though, used to making gritty and realistic crime thrillers, he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, with no distributors willing to back his ideas for fear they’d never get approved for release. Thankfully in 2015, the censorship board has loosened its iron grip ever so slightly, and with Lam’s own desire to still make movies and capture the ever changing Hong Kong landscape on film, Wild City was born.
Louis Koo continues on his mission to appear in every Hong Kong movie ever made (the guy was in 7 movies alone just in 2014), here starring as a disgraced former cop turned bar owner. He quit the force after attempting to cover for his brother, played by Shawn Yue, a petty criminal who has now gone straight and is working as a taxi driver. When Koo befriends a drunken woman from the mainland in his bar, played by Tong Liya, the three of them quickly find themselves being pursued by both her former lover and the group of thugs employed to catch them. The contents of the suitcase she seems so desperate to retrieve soon reveal why, and a game of cat and mouse develops as the trio try to remain one step ahead of their pursuers.
While many argue that the Hong Kong film industry is on its last legs, Lam proves here that it’s still very much possible to create what looks, feels, and is a Hong Kong crime movie. The city is as much a part of the story as the characters who are in it, with its skyline, harbors, countryside, and many narrow alleyways and stairs all lensed in a way that really capture its character. Make no doubt about it, Wild City is just as gritty as you want a Ringo Lam movie to be, but just underneath the surface, it also seems to be a love letter to Hong Kong and its many locales.
Johnnie To also succeeded in making a gritty crime picture with Drug War, which he achieved through filming in the mainland city of Tianjin, but even more so by casting mainland actors as the heroic cops, and a who’s who of Hong Kong talent as the villains. Lam isn’t quite as willing to sellout the Cantonese speaking protagonists that always feature in his movies, so while the gang of thugs pursuing the trio are all clearly speaking Mandarin, he smartly avoids any censorship issues by having them called the ‘Taiwan Gang’. A minor detail, but one that clearly worked. The gang is lead by, appropriately enough, Taiwan actor Joseph Chang. Chang, who starred alongside Jimmy Wang Yu in one of the best movies of 2013, Soul, adds some welcome depth to his character with his portrayal of a guy who just wants to go back home. The death of his acquaintances ultimately gives him more motive to kill than the money he’s being paid, and turns him into a worthy villain of the piece.
Which of course brings us to the violence, an aspect that plays a part in any Ringo Lam movie, whether it be the brutal beatings of Prison on Fire, or the bullet point of view shoot outs of Full Contact. Violence also plays an important part in Wild City, whether it be the threat of it which our 3 protagonists are constantly faced with, or if they’re forced to dish it out themselves. Lam throws the trio into a situation were danger is never far away, and it becomes apparent very quickly that the bad guys like to go old school, arming themselves with steel bars and machetes as their weapons of choice. This leads to a number of chase sequences that effectively build up a sense of desperation and tension, as people get sliced and cut up in a series of bloody confrontations. Special mention should also go to a nasty scene involving a boat propeller.
Things really culminate in the final 30 minutes, kicking off with Koo’s brutal interrogation of a gangster, played by Sam Lee, in an isolated public toilet, which will no doubt have Lam’s fan base nodding their head in approval of the directors return. Throw in a number of vehicle chase sequences that for the most part are played out for real, with some minor and entirely acceptable CGI assistance, and those looking for the visceral action thrill of Lam’s previous works will be more than satisfied. While it could easily be argued that Wild City lacks the kind of layered writing and imagery of his movies like Full Alert, it could also be said that the nature of the story makes this a mute point. As another director who recently returned to the crime genre, Takeshi ‘Beat’ Tikano, had the same criticism leveled towards him, it could be said that Wild City is to Full Alert what Outrage is to Sonatine. Yes the deeper layers may not be there, but they don’t need to be.
Above all the clear message in Wild City is how money corrupts, with Liya’s desperation to hang onto the suitcase perhaps indicative of Lam taking a sly swipe at the youth of China’s current obsession with materialism and money. In one of the movies closing moments, Liya looks across to the Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Harbour and cheerily declares, “Hong Kong is an unforgettable place!” For fans of Hong Kong cinema, so are many of Ringo Lam’s movies, and Wild City sits comfortably amongst them.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10