Grim crime drama “Buttonman” is the latest offering from rising Taiwanese director Chien Ren Hao, previously responsible for “The Underground Order”. The film is the first from Taiwan to be produced by Hong Kong company Mei Ah, and boasts a suitably impressive cast which includes Francis Ng, Leon Dai, Huang Yue, Terri Kwan and Janet Lee. Although its premise, revolving around a body disposal man, may suggest the potential for a grisly suspense thriller, the film earns kudos for taking a very different and far less conventional route.
Hong Kong veteran Francis Ng stars as Wei, the titular Buttonman, a man who works freelance for the gangs, cleaning up after murders, and who apparently earned his name for his habit of always buttoning up the top buttons of the dead. His work can include anything from wiping down rooms to chopping up bodies, and he certainly seems to be good at it, being thorough and employing some pretty inventive methods. His assistant Doctor (Leon Dai, recently in Chung Mong Hong’s excellent “Parking”) is killed after getting involved in smuggling organs for the black market, landing Wei in trouble with the syndicates. His boss sends him a new, inexperienced assistant (played by Mainland star Huang Yue), who he gradually teaches the tricks of the trade. Unfortunately, their relationship is soon complicated by the kid falling for Wei’s prostitute girlfriend (Terri Kwan, also in Taiwanese horror “The Heirloom”) and his attempts to push his mentor into solving a series of particularly brutal murders of local girls, playing upon the conscience which he may or may not have.
“Buttonman” really benefits from an offbeat set of characters, most notably Wei himself. Sporting an odd hairdo, he is a particularly hard drinking sort, and it is rare that he is seen without a glass or his hipflask in his hand. Indeed, he spends almost all of his time away from murder scenes in a seedy but vaguely hip bar, knocking them back with impressive speed. Writer director Chien Ren Hao puts a lot of effort into making him a complex character, and although this does make for some strange undercurrents, involving revelations of Wei’s memory loss and true identity, these do come together towards the end in an effectively round about way. His dynamics and relationships with the other characters are similarly unconventional and whilst the film isn’t exactly moving, it is emotionally rewarding. Ng turns in a great performance, striking just the right balance of detachment and buried morality, making Wei a fascinating protagonist, wretched and yet quite likeable in his own way.
The film is certainly more of a character drama than a thriller, and there is very little in the way of “CSI” style crime scene action, or conventional suspense, despite a few tense set pieces. Although the plot does meander, and the film frequently loses its focus, Chien’s approach actually works very well, and the proceedings have a uniquely laid-back, disaffected air which perfectly matches his themes. Again, this gives the film a winningly different feel which sets it apart from the majority of more straight forward crime or triad dramas.
Unsurprisingly, Chien aims for a noir look, with some “Se7en” style visuals, giving most scenes a dark red tinge. Thankfully, he holds back on the neon, and coupled with some handheld camera work, this gives the film a lurid, though pleasingly grounded feel. Things do get quite violent and sleazy in places, with a lot of after the fact blood and a number of gruesome murders. Given that it takes place deep within the dregs of the underworld, and that almost all of the characters are either prostitutes, gangsters or killers of one variety of another, it does make for dark, nihilistic viewing, and even though Chien does deliver an almost positive message, he eschews the usual promises of hope and redemption.
As such, although perhaps likely to disappoint viewers expecting high octane thrills or taut suspense, “Buttonman” is certainly one of the better and more interesting crime films to have come from either Taiwan or indeed Hong Kong over the last year. Effectively anchored by Francis Ng’s star turn in the lead role and featuring some skilful direction and writing from Chien Ren Hao, it should certainly be enjoyed by genre fans looking for something different, and indeed darker than the norm.
Jen-hao Chie (director) / Jen-hao Chie (screenplay)
CAST: Francis Ng … Wei
Leon Dai … Doc
Yue Huang … Kid