Saturday, 6 January 2007

One Last Dance 茶舞 (2005)

Harvey Keitel implores the filmmakers not to mix comedy with hardboiled noir. Will they heed his advice?

MacGuffin: a mainstay plot device of noir and thriller films, reportedly coined by Alfred Hitchcock. It is most often an object (although it could be a person) which compels the main characters to chase each other in the movie. In a heist film, it would be a necklace; in a spy film, it would be a set of documents; in any episode of Alias, it would be whatever Sydney Bristow has to retrieve before Sloane got his hands on it. The best MacGuffins is one where the audience have no idea what it really is, yet functions so well (i.e. draws every character into the plot) that the audience don’t care: it is the Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon, the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible 3, the wristwatch and suitcases in Pulp Fiction.

In One Last Dance, the MacGuffin is the "Tatat" that low-ranking local gangster Ko (Joseph Quek) is outsourced by the Italian mob to procure. We don’t know what it is (Diamonds? Drugs? A doomsday device? Parts of a human body?) aside from it being stored in 3 suitcases, but Ko’s search for Tatat, assisted by his hitman friend T (Francis Ng), quickly embroils half the criminal underworld which ends up dead from his overzealous search. The problem revealed to us early on is that T’s major (and anonymous) client is out for revenge as a direct result of Ko’s actions, and will surely order the deaths of everyone involved, no matter how marginal and indirect their role. And he has commissioned T to carry out the killings.

It takes a very special breed of hitman to perform these executions – some of which involve his friends and colleagues. Professional isn’t just the word to use, perhaps philosophical or ethical would be far more appropriate. This introduces us to our next words of the day: Alain Delon and Le Samouraï. That’s the actor who plays the perfectionist hitman in the seminal noir film by Jean-Pierre Melville. Francis Ng’s T, like Delon’s Costello, lives by a strict code of honour and philosophy, has an impeccable fashion style, and is a perfect hitman. And like Costello, T’s perfection in a world that is very far from perfect, professionalism in a criminal underworld that suffers from bureaucratic bungling and a lack of thieves’ honour, will lead him to tragedy. And like Costello, T’s final assignment leads him to the first pangs of love, in the form of a waitress who is involved in the Tatat affair...

Now in my review for The High Cost of Living – the first feature noir film from Singapore – I mentioned that the main aim of genre filmmaking 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." It is on these standards that Max Makowski and his work should be judged.

The first innovation is the nature of the philosophical and professional killer. What Melville achieves by flashing austere quotations from a fictional Book of Bushido in the opening of Le Samouraï, Makowski drenches his movie with excesses to show that T’s spiritual and philosophical depth: his opening voiceover feels like a poem recited at the gallows, full of imagery and allusions; he meets up with his old friend the police captain (Ti Lung) regularly, often baffling each other with ethical riddles while engaging in a game of correspondence chess, and expounds on his ethics of killing ("Vodka would be a happy time; whiskey, a sad time. Gentlemen, what would you like to drink?") before dispatching his victims. We get the point after a while that this is one deep dude you don’t want to mess around with, but somehow all the painstaking setup goes to waste when he turns all silly and gooey after meeting The Love Interest, aka the waitress (Vivian Hsu, who looks great in tears).

The second innovation is a stylistic one: Max Makowski, director of television’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, assembles a wide range of visual styles cobbled from Pulp Fiction to Mr Vengeance. On screen, it sure is fun to watch as you don’t quite know what will come next. At times, though, Makowski can go too far in his stylistic acrobatics and leave you scratching your head to wonder why that needed to be done. Faring far better is his narrative style, which lets the story unfold in a very non-linear style that resonates with the ethical and moral murkiness of the city Ko, T and the police captain inhabit, as well as magnify the mystery-within-a-mystery hook that sets the movie up for a major plot twist near the end of the final act. Your mileage may vary – I am sure I understood 80% of the story, but wouldn’t mind watching One Last Dance again. Others may just give up at the seeming incomprehensibility of the convoluted story.

Makowski’s final innovation is a melding of noir with slapstick and lowbrow comedy. I’m sure Stephen Chow could make a slapstick gangster film if he wanted to, but noir is much more than gangsterism – it is a mood, an outlook, a philosophy. The slapstick – reminiscent of the early Mediacorp bumbling gangster comedy style – jars badly with the noir elements. It’s a pity: even though average audiences may not detest it, film noir lovers – the people who would most want to watch One Last Dance on the strength and promises of its trailer – would be somewhat let down by the intrusive comic elements. Makowski has Harvey Keitel deliver some advice to Ko in the movie about not mixing two incompatible gangster cultures together, but fails to recognise the flaws dealt to his film by mixing two incompatible film genres together.

First published at incinemas on 10 January 2007

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