Although viewers might be forgiven for an initial lack of excitement at the thought of yet another Hong Kong film revolving around the angst-ridden life of an undercover policeman, the fact that “On the Edge” sees actor Anthony Wong re-teaming with director Herman Yau should be enough to pique the interest. The film certainly marks a return to form for Yau, who after making uncompromising classics such as “The Untold Story” and “Ebola Syndrome” (both of which feature Wong in excellent performances) has of late been churning out far less remarkable commercial fare like “Papa I Love You” and the execrable non-horror “Dating Death”. Here, Yau takes what appears to be an overly familiar scenario, turns it around, and by taking a less traditional route, produces something which is very different to the usual tale of betrayal and tainted honour.
After a prologue which may or may not be showing his death, the film begins as undercover policeman Harry (Nick Cheung, who recently made an impression in Johnnie To’s “Election”) arrests his boss, the scarf wearing Don Dark (Francis Ng) after having infiltrated Dark’s gang for four years. With the Don safely behind bars and apparently uninterested in revenge, Harry is put back on the streets with new partner Lung (Anthony Wong), a brutal veteran officer who has a nasty habit of beating up any gangsters who cross his path and who is not averse to a little evidence planting.
Poor Harry finds it very difficult to adjust to his new life, shunned by his former triad buddies, dumped by his hard drinking girlfriend Cat (Rain Li) and mistrusted by his new colleagues, who seem to think that he is more criminal than cop. Needless to say, things don’t exactly go as planned for the unhappy man, and with the stress of being alone and despised, he slowly starts to crack.
“On the Edge” certainly offers an interesting variation on the undercover policeman routine, and Yau explores a fair bit of uncharted territory, asking some searching questions about the morality of such work that go beyond the usual melancholy musings. The director’s trademark cynicism and bleakness is very much on show, and the film is a dark, gritty affair with no pretensions towards heroism or even redemption, focusing instead on tragedy and human weakness. These themes are explored through a fairly ambitious narrative which leaps back and forth between the protagonist’s life as a gangster and cop, with the line between them being frequently blurred.
Whether it be Yau’s intention or not, things do get a bit confusing at times, with the only way of telling when events are supposed to be taking place being the colour of Harry’s hair, which is a cocky blond streak job when working undercover, and a more sedate black back in the present day. This does keep things interesting, and allows Yau to make some telling statements about both the hollow brotherhood of gang life and the casual corruption of the police.
All of this works well thanks to a set of believable, skilfully written characters which bring “On the Edge” to life. Harry makes for an effective protagonist, gradually opening up to the viewer in a way which nicely underscores his life falling apart, and although the viewer never really comes to care for him as such, his unfortunate fate certainly packs a punch. The supporting cast are all equally well used, and the film is mercifully free of any cuddly triad stereotypes or improbable policemen who look like teen models.
The film as a whole is far lower key than the likes of “Infernal Affairs”, and is largely devoid of set pieces, car chases or explosive shoot outs. Although there are a few sudden bursts of violent action, including a shockingly bloody chopper attack, Yau subtly notches up the tension through human drama. His direction is understated, and though the film moves along at a fast pace, covering a great deal of ground in less than an hour and a half, it develops in a natural, almost hesitant manner, without any forced plot twists or sudden revelations, with the viewer only too aware that Harry is heading for a bad end.
“On the Edge” makes for more gripping and thoughtful entertainment than might be initially thought capable, and it stands as an adult, mature example of the genre. Yau again proves himself as one of the most underrated directors working in Hong Kong, and it is hoped that he will build upon the success of “On the Edge” and continue with his unique brand of cynical, dark, yet painfully human cinema.
Herman Yau (director) / Herman Yau (screenplay)
CAST: Nick Cheung …. Harry
Rain Li …. Cat
Francis Ng …. Dark
Kwok Cheung Tsang …. Mini B
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang …. Lung