Just in case there were any viewers left out there who hadn’t quite gotten the point that life for undercover cops in Hong Kong is hazardous and generally depressing comes the cunningly titled “Undercover”. All flippancy aside, the film certainly boasts an impressive pedigree, being directed by “Colour of the Loyalty” helmer Billy Chung and produced by Andrew Lau whose “Infernal Affairs” gave the genre its recent and seemingly endless surge in popularity.
The story is familiar stuff, following Feng (Shawn Yue, recently in Benny Chan’s “Invisible Target”), an undercover policeman whose return to the force after spending years infiltrating the triads is not going too well. Unsurprisingly, the poor lad is having some trouble readjusting to a law abiding life, and still spends most of his time hanging around with criminal friend Fai (the irrepressible Sam Lee, turning in a performance which though not as gritty as his work in “Dog Bite Dog” is at least straight faced enough to convince) and taking copious amounts of drugs. When a nightly session results in the shooting of another policeman, Fai goes underground while Feng tries desperately to cover their tracks, forcing him into a series of confrontations with figures from his shady past.
Thankfully, “Undercover” turns out to be far better than its uninspired title and premise might suggest, mainly due to the fact that it pulls few punches in depicting the downward spiral of a genuinely confused man who is neither wholly cop nor criminal. Yue manages to lend Feng fair amount of pathos, and the film is actually quite brave in that it allows him to remain an anti-hero figure that never seems particularly eager to head down the usual path to redemption. This makes the drama more interesting than it might otherwise have been, and although the plot is entirely predictable (does anyone reading this review really expect a happy ending?), Chung does manage to keep the viewer engaged by not relying too much upon flashbacks, and by throwing in a few plot twists en route to the inevitable conclusion.
For the most part the proceedings are kept admirably gritty, and Chung wrings plenty of suspense out of Feng’s increasingly desperate attempts to stay one step ahead of his colleagues and the circling gangster-vultures. There is a constant air of mistrust, with most of the cast being engaged in one form of deception or another, and to an extent this forces the viewer to experience the growing paranoia of the protagonist. Needless to say, the film is all very macho, with plenty of brooding and regrets at brotherhood turned sour, and with the sole female role predictably being that of a club girl / prostitute called Sandy (played by Monie Tung, recently in Herman Yau’s “Whispers and Moans”) who turns up only as another reminder of Feng’s past and to give the relationship between the male leads a not unexpected twist.
The film has a grainy look which gives it a gritty edge throughout, as does Chung’s oddly sinister use of colour and the discordant soundtrack. Although there is perhaps a little too much in the way of slow motion, the visuals are fairly impressive, with just about enough style to help distract from the lack of originality. Most importantly, Chung manages to keep things brief and brisk, and despite plenty of angst and shoe-gazing, with a running time of less than an hour and a half, the film never outstays its tenuous welcome. Although there isn’t really much action, there is an effective atmosphere of violence and a few moments of brutality, including an excruciating finger smashing scene (though this loses some of its impact when just a few minutes later the character seems strangely uninjured) and the usual assortment of beatings and stabbings.
To really make a mark in such an overcrowded field as this requires something special, and whilst “Undercover” doesn’t quite achieve this, it does manage to tick all the right boxes, and is on par with other similar recent releases such as Herman Yau’s “On the Edge”. Well directed and acted, the film benefits from a resolutely immoral and non-judgemental take on the subject matter which allows it to stand out from the crowd somewhat, enough so to make it entertaining viewing for fans of the form or anyone after a dark, edgy thriller.
Siu-hung Chung (director) / Lo Yiu-Fai (screenplay)
CAST: Sam Lee … Fai
Shawn Yue … Feng