Tuesday, 15 August 2006

High Cost of Living, the (2006)

The perfect getaway - or is it?

The High Cost of Living is the third and final feature release this year under the Film Incubator Programme (FIP) for digital films. It is also Leonard Lai’s first ever feature film, and the eighth local feature film to hit cinemas this year. Watching most of these movies, I get the sense of excitement and ambition, much more so in the FIP series (S11 and Unarmed Combat), that directors are more willing to take risks with unconventional topics and stories. In particular, the FIP series is marked by directors rejecting arty films like Eric Khoo’s, as well as broad comedies like Jack Neo’s. In itself, this is no guarantee of a good movie; S11 had a tight script that complemented its relatively original premise, while Unarmed Combat did not manage to expand out of its quirky original short film.

Leonard Lai and Jeremy Chia are certainly ambitious, for The High Cost of Living is an attempt at neo noir, refracted through the lens of Hong Kong criminal action thrillers, set in a mostly Singaporean locale. The central characters are Long (Timothy Nga), a member of the Special Ops department in an unnamed government agency, who also has a license to kill (and never fails to exercise that license), and Gid (Roy Ngerng), a professional assassin who accepts contracts only if the intended victims deserve to die – like a corrupt Singaporean businessman who had too much guanxi in Shanghai. Gid murders nasty people, and Long investigates those murders in a brutal shoot first, ask later fashion. When the driven and merciless bounty hunter begins to hunt down the driven and passionate assassin, who will win? Who will walk away with the cleaner conscience?

You would be forgiven for thinking straight away: neo noir meets Infernal Affairs meets Assassins! But the point about genre films is not about coming up with something completely original, but to create rare combinations from familiar elements of the genre, and to improve the telling of the genre film. By this yardstick, High Cost scores with its mixing of the noir genre with the hardboiled Hongkong 1980s cop vs killer setup, as well as the mutual amorality of the cops and criminals in the Infernal Affairs trilogy. What is disappointing, or perhaps expected, is that screenplay is unable to keep all the balls in the air. Lai and Chia do try to give equal screen time to Timothy Nga and Roy Ngerng, but the key thing that must be done in a proper noir film of this nature is not just to show the amorality of the detective’s actions, but deliver on the existential dissonance or cynicism it creates in his character. Despite their intentions, it is all too easy for the audience to sympathise with Gid killer than with Long, and for them to focus on Gid as the central character.

Script-wise, High Cost feels relatively tight, but occasionally there are overlong scenes that disrupt the filmic rhythm that a noir film should have, mostly due to the director lingering too long over death scenes and reaction shots, leading to an undermining of the credibility of some scenes. There are only a few unnecessary scenes, but they are forgivable given that this is the first feature attempt by the director and writer.

More annoying is the dialogue in the movie. While Ngerng, Nga and Hamish Brown are comfortable using English, their older co-stars are not, and it is noticeable when they obviously stumble through their lines. The brilliance about filming on digital video (as the FIP series uses) is the cheapness of film. If the actors stumble through their delivery, with hesitant pauses and extraneous sibilant syllables between words, the director should have just deleted the scene and reshot it. Digital video is so convenient that when mistakes like this slip through, they are even more damning than they would normally be.

Technical skill and production values in High Cost is average. Precisely because the director and cinematographer throws in a kitchen sink’s worth of wide angle, Dutch angle and low angle shots, their efforts scream out the fact that they are haven’t moved beyond the short film mindset. That’s the one where filmmakers feel a pressing need to show the audience how many innovative angles and shots they can cram within a 10 minute short. It looks great at times, but over a period of 90 minutes, continuous mishmash of fancy shooting techniques can get tiring, and is ultimately a distraction from the telling of the story.

The shortcomings of digital video are all but exposed by the (deliberate) constant changes in lighting – some scenes, especially those under fluorescent light, simply look ghastly. Generally, High Cost and S11 prove that low cost digital cameras are better suited for outdoors scenes and handheld scenes. It is also possible that the low end equipment caused a few colour palette changes from just a change in camera angle, and in bright outdoors lighting, cause a blurring effect on moving objects. What this means is digital video is a very sensitive medium, cheap but requiring huge investments in post-production time. We note that colour correction has much to be desired, and hope that High Cost does not dissuade future and aspiring filmmakers to abandon digital video as a legitimate medium.

First published at incinemas on 17 August 2006

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