Thursday, 24 August 2006

On the Edge 黑白道 (2006)

This is why you take pictures with cellphones instead

Imagine Donnie Brasco transplanted to Hong Kong as a crime drama. Imagine if the drama was about Donnie Brasco after his undercover assignment ended, if he went back to the police force instead of retiring to the witness protection programme. The result, I imagine, would be an premise for a movie with strong storytelling – if we can find the right director to do it. After all, Hong Kong crime drama is often too easily spoiled by skin-deep writing, non-credible plot points, and a tendency to glamorise the criminal elements of the drama…

Much to our surprise, Herman Yau meets the requirements that the premise demands, and turns in an emotionally compelling film that is also intricately plotted. That’s right, Yau answers the intriguing "what if Donnie Brasco had to continue living after turning in his gangland boss" and bursting with ambition, goes further than that. You’ll notice all of this in the first 5 minutes of the movie, because it actually consists of two intertwined stories alternating with each other. On one track, we have the story of how Harry, a young cop, manages to gain the trust of an up-and-rising gang leader, gets accustomed to years of living with friends and lovers from the underworld, before gathering the evidence that will put his boss away for good. On the other track, we have the story of how Harry, now an older cop, returns to police work, and finds that he has to gain the trust of his superiors, partner, and the ICAC internal watchdog body, as well as face the guilt of betraying his former gangland friends.

Stylistically, the twin stories in On the Edge are handled with class, without resorting to cheap emotionalism and trite parallel plotting. In a turn that strongly reminds us of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Yau begins both stories at their ends with an arresting, even shocking image: that of Harry holding a gun to the temple of Dark, his gangland boss, and of Harry lying face down on a road, dying before his police colleagues, a victim of a sting operation gone wrong, perhaps. I am impressed with how Yau juggles with developing both stories and finds the appropriate moments to cut between each other. The story of the cop is told mainly through shifting between the locations of the anti-vice raids he must now carry out in the police force, which happen to be the locations where key moments of his undercover gangland career developed.

Yes, it sounds gimmicky on paper, but somehow as a cinematic experience, Yau is skilful enough to ensure that there is no easy mirroring of the two stories, by shifting between the stories in a natural and non-intrusive manner, sometimes causing us to wonder if we’re watching a flashback or a prophetic flashforward. Yet what matters is the sense of forboding fate that will finally catch up with both Harry and Dark. Shifting between two stories and two timelines, the movie is told much less linearly than most Hong Kong criminal dramas, and further adds to the sense of quality this movie already has.

Like Donny Brasco, the issues of trust and honour lie heavily in the mind of the protagonist of On the Edge. But unlike Donny Brasco, which focussed on the mentor-pupil relationship of Lefty and Donny, On the Edge focuses on the relation between Harry and his rank and file gangland colleagues and their molls, and presents his internal turmoil as a result of the extended betrayal of those friends instead of as a result of the betrayal of their leader and friend. Yet this is a move that has payoffs and pitfalls for the film. Yes, the sense of guilt and self-hatred is more understandable and palpable, but this is achieved through an underdevelopment of Dark and the nature of his mentoring of Harry in the gang. Dark, as the ultimate prize of the first story, is a strangely insubstantial character.

On the Edge is so well made that there isn’t much to criticise. The soundtrack is neatly composed and appropriate, except for the few beats of choral music in the key dramatic scenes near the end, while the cinematography is every bit as mature as the scripting and premise of the film. One only gets the feeling that 39 year old Nick Leung should lay off playing roles meant for actors 10 years younger. Even if he dyes his hair and has youthful features, his age still shows easily, no thanks to Yau’s strange directorial decision to focus the camera on the star’s sagging body parts.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006

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