Hong Kong films about hitmen are pretty much a dime a dozen, especially those which feature a pair of mismatched assassins, generally one of which is quiet and reflective, and the other loud and flamboyant. Recent efforts such as the grandiose “Fulltime Killer” and the harder edged “Double Tap” have pretty much covered all of the possible angles and delivered the definitive versions of the form. Thankfully, with “The Odd One Dies”, Patrick Yau offers up a very different take on the overly familiar story, much as he did for the clich’d triad thriller with the complex “The Longest Nite”.
With “The Odd One Dies” Yau focuses his attention on a pair of very strange characters who are miles away from the stereotypical assassins which generally populate such films. Another welcome deviation from the norm is that while the film certainly has its moments of action and violence, Yau is more concerned with the relationships between the two would-be killers and their place within Hong Kong society itself. Having said that, “The Odd One Dies” is not an angst ridden conscience film, nor is it a romantic take on the traditional formula. Shot more like a Wong Kar-Wai effort than anything, this film is hard to pigeonhole, but is very successful, standing out as an individual, creative, amusing and tense entry in a genre which has long been known for a lack of originality.
The film marks another collaboration between Yau and producer Johnnie To (who actually co-directed “Fulltime Killer”), with whom he also worked on “The Longest Nite”, as well as numerous other projects such as the recent “Throw Down”. Fans of To will recognise this as one of his quieter, more quirky character piece films, more in the vein of “My Left Eye Sees Ghosts” rather than the slick tension of “Breaking News”.
“The Odd One Dies” starts by introducing the viewer to Mo (Takeshi Kaneshiro, recently in Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers”), a sullen, petty criminal who seems to spend most of his time being mocked, beaten up or losing at gambling. Attempting to gain some respect, Mo takes on a contract to kill a visiting Thai businessman. However, after winning a fortune through gambling, he decides to contract out the killing to another assassin.
He is introduced to an unnamed girl (Carmen Lee, from To’s “Loving You”) who has recently been released from prison after carrying out a hit for the man she loved. Emotionally wounded by her experiences, the girl agrees to take on the job, at the same time manipulating Mo into contacting the man she was previously involved with, leading to complications and inevitably, conflict. As the date of the hit draws closer, the two potential killers find themselves forming an odd bond, and as the chances of success begin to look bleak, they must decide who will carry out the assassination, an act which will almost surely be suicidal (hence the film’s somewhat strange title).
A somewhat trite, though fairly accurate, description of “The Odd One Dies” would be to call it the “Twin Peaks” of the Hong Kong hitman genre, as both are based around and driven by a set of eccentric characters. This comparison is furthered by Raymond Wong’s ambient, atmospheric synth-jazz soundtrack, which strongly recalls some of Angelo Badalamenti’s more off key moments. The two central characters in “The Odd One Dies” are certainly quite different from the genre norm, and are all the more interesting and refreshing for it. Yau allows them to dictate the film, and much of it feels like a series of personal anecdotes, with the assassination plot lurking ominously in the background rather than being the top concern.
Although there is a fair amount of violence in the film, this is certainly not the typical genre entry, and those expecting slow motion gunfights will no doubt be disappointed. In fact, most of the film is very understated, and though Yau’s direction is undeniably stylish, it is nicely unobtrusive, relying more on the impressive cinematography of Siu-keng Cheng (whose work also benefited various To productions such as “Breaking News”) rather than flashy techniques. The film has a rich, gorgeous look, with excellent use of colour, and really brings the city to life, highlighting the emotions of the characters and the feelings of isolation from general society.
Yau skillfully balances the action and human elements of the story, paying attention to the smallest nuances of his characters. As a result, both Mo and the girl are genuinely engaging, and with this level of viewer attachment, the film becomes a journey of personal discovery, and a search for respect and meaning in life, a theme to which all viewers can surely relate. Their burgeoning relationship, which is one between two obviously wounded and insecure people, is both touching and believable, and whilst Yau does not stress it as the centre of the plot, it is certainly the film’s emotional heart. In fact, it is in moments such as when Mo and the girl attempt to get a room in an upmarket hotel, or when they attempt to create disguises for each other, that the film is most effective, and quite often, very moving.
The acting is of a very high standard, with both Kaneshiro and Lee turning in excellent, subtle performances that at times seem to border on the improvised. Kaneshiro is especially good as the moody and often silent Mo, bringing depth to a role which actors such as Edison Chen (recently dreadful in the vacuous “Moving Targets”) would simply have pouted their way through. This gives the film a sense of realism, and further endears the character to the audience. The script is actually fairly minimalist, and a lot of the character traits are illustrated through gestures and small actions rather than obvious exposition. From this, the viewer gains a feeling of getting to know the story’s players, as opposed to having to simply accept what is said, and from this attachment the film grows tenser as events escalate, since there is a genuine concern as to their fates.
Overall, “The Odd One Dies” is highly recommended. It offers a very different approach to a rather clich’d subject, and creates a pair of genuinely interesting and engaging characters whose at times dark search for purpose and meaning is one of the more unique and interesting stories to have come from Hong Kong in recent years.
Nai-Hoi Yau (director) / Ka-Fai Wai (screenplay)
CAST: Suet Lam …. Mah jong heavy
Woo Nin Byun
Takeshi Kaneshiro …. Mo
Carman Lee …. The Girl