A-1 (2004) Movie Review

“A-1” proves my theory that any movie with Anthony Wong in a prominent role can’t possibly be bad. More old fashion mystery than thriller, “A-1” stars Angelica Lee (the driving engine of “The Eye”) as Ling, a fashion reporter who discovers that her ex-boyfriend, who has just died in a car crash, may have been working on a big story that got him killed. And with her editor (played by Tony Leung Ka Fai, not to be mistaken with Tony Leung of “2046” and other Wong Kar Wai films) going about behind her back, acting very, as the kids say, “shady”, Ling thinks she may be onto something.

Alas, Ling is just a fashion reporter, the kind of person who knows what cellphone is “in” at the moment. Investigating the mysterious death of a lover, with everyone from the cops to her editor seemingly stonewalling her, is not something she’s good at. Luckily for Ling, debt collector and ex-cop Fei (Anthony Wong) is there to save the day. Determined to keep the spunky Ling from getting herself killed, and telling his partner Ma (Eric Kot) that they’re really after a big score, Fei uses his police skills to interpret the clues left behind by Ling’s boyfriend, and perhaps right his own life in the process.

Helping the duo is nerdy photographer Kei, played by Edison Chen (“Moving Targets”) as a bumbling kid who is apparently channeling Peter Parker. With those thick black glasses and goofy mannerisms, Chen doesn’t really work as comedy relief, mostly because he never says, or does, anything particularly funny. Eric Kot supplies the real comic relief, but as bad luck would have it, Fei sends his character on a mission that takes him away from the movie until the very end. The rest of the film plays out as a straight mystery, with Ling, Fei, and Kei finding out that the closer they get to the truth, the murkier the truth gets.

“A-1” is a good film, something it would have had to strive mightily not to be considering the two headliners. No one does sad eyes better than Angelica Lee, and Anthony Wong works as a mysterious man of action with a shady past. In a stroke of irony, it’s revealed that debt collector Fei is up to his ears in debt to the Triads and even his own boss. Kicked out of the police force years ago for his gang affiliations (he owes the Triads a ton of money), Fei is reluctant to take on the cops once more, but as he comments to Kei, Ling has no sense of danger whatsoever, so it’s up to him to keep the sassy little lady in one piece.

While the murder mystery is mildly interesting, it’s easily shoved into the background, because the real treat of “A-1” is watching veteran actor Anthony Wong working with the young and up and coming Angelica Lee. There’s no doubt the duo are vastly talented, and this is most obvious when Edison Chen is around. Chen’s PR people will probably hunt me down for saying so, but you’ve never seen an actor more ill-equipped to act until you’ve seen Chen trying mightily to keep up with the complex work being dished out by Lee and Wong without breaking a sweat.

A scene on the roof of Fei’s apartment building is one of the movie’s highlights. In it, Lee and Wong are confronting each other in the subtlest of manners, their characters barely speaking a word. The way Wong refuses to look at her, and the way she tries to play off their burgeoning affections for one another as simple friendship, is worth sitting through the entirety of “A-1” for. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what good actors can do.

Needless to say, Angelica Lee’s name has been at the top of my “to see” list for a while now, ever since she wowed in “Princess D”. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Lee seems unconcerned with taking part in every single movie ever made (Twins girls, pay attention). Ever since her breakthrough role in the very human drama “Princess D”, Lee has gone from intense horror (“The Eye”) to comedy (“Golden Chicken 2”) to female drama (“20:30:40”) and then to thriller (“Koma”). “A-1” represents another fine performance, and the kind of movie that will surely keep Lee from being typecast in the years to come. With her eye for good projects, it’s a good idea to invest your moviegoing experience in her next film. The chances of disappointment are slim.

“A-1” works on many levels, although it does come up surprisingly short when it comes to exposing the headline-driven, cut throat business of newspapers. We really never learn all that much about how a newspaper gets run, or the politics of going up against your boss — your editor, as well as your owner. The film makes broad strokes, but in general it doesn’t have much interest, or at least the execution wasn’t there, to become a hard-hitting expose on the workings of a big city newspaper. Maybe the filmmakers realized it was tedious stuff and tried to minimize it. Either way, one shouldn’t expect too much insight on the subject.

“A-1” was directed by Gordon Chan, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Chan is an old hand with action movies and Triad films, counting “Beast Cops” (also starring Wong) and “2000 A.D.” among his credits. He’s also gone international, having directed the Jackie Chan starrer “The Medallion”. With “A-1”, Gordon Chan has elected to make a movie without all the bells and whistles of an action film. In fact, except for one stray bullet that doesn’t hit its target, “A-1” is almost entirely devoid of action. That is, unless you count a blatant moment of police brutality and a burning shack.

Boasting not one, but two solid performers who are as guaranteed as they come in today’s Hong Kong cinema, “A-1” is one of those movies you can’t go wrong with. Of course it could have done more with its newspaper setting, but it’s hard to say that it didn’t get the job done as is. Angelica Lee and Anthony Wong remains favorites, and if anything the film just solidifies their position on my “to see” list. Another proof of their talent is the fact that Wong is many years older than Lee, but after some (appropriately) awkward moments in the early going, the duo still manage to make the romance convincing. In fact, one of the film’s funnier moments is when Ling, after getting a lecture by Wong, jokes that he reminds her of her father. Wong’s reaction is absolutely priceless.

Gordon Chan, Chung Kai Cheong (director) / Gordon Chan, Chung Kai Cheong (screenplay)
CAST: Angelica Lee …. Ling
Anthony Wong …. Fei
Eric Kot …. Ma
Tony Leung Ka Fai …. Chief Editor Tsang
Edison Chen …. Kei

Buy A-1 on DVD