One of the traits of Hong Kong action films that set them apart from their Hollywood counterparts is an attempt to imbue a sense of deep emotional conviction to the main characters, some sort of latent internal conflict that eventually boils over and leaves the characters with a sense of self doubt and forces them to re-examine their lives. The favorite central characters of Hong Kong action films are the pairing of a professional killer with his/her arch nemesis on the police force. Thus it follows that the assassin will eventually question the meaning of his/her chosen profession and the cop will begin to doubt his ability to perform his job. When executed properly, this can result in a very powerful film (John Woo’s “The Killer” and “A Better Tomorrow” were two such films).
Unfortunately, for every good film, there are 20 bad ones (such as the “A Better Tomorrow” sequels) that reduce the formula to nothing more than forced melodrama. “Beyond Hypothermia” falls somewhere in-between. Slickly produced by genre legend Johnnie To and directed by John Woo understudy Patrick Leung, “Beyond Hypothermia” is a gritty, violent and visually flashy, but still very much a by-the-numbers action flick. Heavily derivative of Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita,” “Beyond Hypothermia” puts a minor twist on the aforementioned formula by giving us a cat and mouse game between pretty female assassin Shu Li Han (Chien-lien Wu from “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman”) and the vengeful bodyguard of one of her targets.
An orphan refugee from Cambodia, Shu Li Han lives in a small room surrounded by just enough personal belongings to sustain her for three months. Groomed to be an assassin since she was a child by her mysterious and iron-fisted foster aunt/handler (played by a dour Shirley Wong), Shu spends her off time waxing poetic about her lack of a personal life due to the demands of her profession. No friends, no acquaintances, not even a photograph, since these things provide a link to her that can be exploited by her enemies and rivals. These feelings finally overcome Shu, and she embarks on a clumsy romance with a neighborhood noodle vendor (Lau Ching Wan, “Running Out of Time”). Predictably, Shu’s attempts to leave ‘the life’ and start anew backfires as the vengeful bodyguard closes in for the kill.
Shot within a nihilistic vacuum, the film starts out with a very stylish opening hit in an icehouse, but the mid-section plods along mainly due to the poorly written interaction between Shu and Law Ching Wan’s noodle vendor. They start innocently enough, but it seems that the writers were attempting to make the relationship seem child-like to highlight Shu’s social ineptitude. It comes off as just plain silly as the two have no chemistry, mainly due to Lau Ching Wan’s poorly developed character. This same type of fractured romance was handled far better in “Full-time Killer”.
We get all the usual ultimatums, betrayals and melodramatic dying declarations that we’ve come to expect from b-grade Hong Kong actioners. They also throw in some unnecessary lesbian and incestuous undertones between Shu and her aunt. The only real bit of clever writing is the film’s title, which not only addresses a curious biological trait of Shu’s, but is also a cheeky reference to her occupation as a cold-blooded killer. For her part, Wu does a good job as the conflicted assassin, effectively expressing her inner turmoil and handling firearms convincingly. Han is also effective as the revenge-minded bodyguard, and manages to avoid taking the character into the realm of caricature.
The movie picks up considerably whenever the action takes center stage. John Woo’s influence is evident, with Leung’s camera swooping around the battlefield as bullets and bodies fly willy-nilly. Leung does exercise a welcome degree of restraint, discreetly using slow motion, fast forward, super zooms, close-ups and moving crane shots to compliment the action without overwhelming it. The final sequence, a savage demolition derby set to gunfire, is particularly well done. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough action to keep the film moving, even at a short 82-minute runtime.
“Beyond Hypothermia” is an admirable attempt to inject emotional gravitas into a well-worn genre, but it ultimately trips over its own half-baked script. While it has style to spare, a strong lead actress, and spills plenty of blood, the laughable character interaction and uneven pace keep the film from being more than another mediocre Hong Kong action film.
Patrick Leung (director) / Roy Szeto (screenplay)
CAST: Sang Woo Han …. Yichin
Ching Wan Lau …. Long Shek
Chien-lien Wu …. Shu Li Han