Perhaps even more so than John Woo, Ringo Lam is a perfect example of why Eastern directors should think twice before succumbing to the lure of Hollywood. Having been responsible for classics of Hong Kong action such as “City on Fire” (from which Tarantino liberally borrowed to make the inferior “Reservoir Dogs”) and “Full Contact”, Lam made the effort of crossing the world, only to churn out Jean-Claude Van Damme stinkers like “Maximum Risk” and “Replicant”. Both failed at the box office as well as being critically slaughtered, and basically ended any hopes of a high profile stateside career for Lam.
Actually, Van Damme seems to have an uncanny ability to attract and degrade Asian masters, having done the same to Tsui Hark (“Time and Tide”) with the awful “Double Team” and “Knock Off”. Whatever influence or popularity the self styled ‘muscles from Brussels’ may exert, the fact remains that although successful enough in the rental market, his films are artless and dreadful, stains upon the reputations of otherwise excellent directors.
Thankfully for genre fans, despite falling prey to Van Damme’s charms once more with “The Savage” (aka “In Hell”), Lam did return to Hong Kong and to a higher quality of film, such as “Victim”. This is actually quite a different film than fans of the director may expect, being a Hitchcockian thriller with horror overtones, rather than an out and out bloodbath of gunplay and honor. Here, Lam goes for atmosphere and ambiguity as much as action and the result is a tense, intriguing film that re-establishes him as one of the leading Hong Kong directors of popular cinema in recent times.
The plot concerns Ma (Ching Wan Lau, excellent in “The Longest Nite”), a mild mannered computer engineer who is kidnapped one night while working late. The police, led by officer Pit (Tony Leung Ka Fai, recently in Johnnie To’s “Throw Down”) investigate, at first suspecting his wife, Amy (Amy Kwok, a former ‘Miss Hong Kong’, and Lau’s real life spouse). However, Pit receives a call from the kidnappers saying that Ma has been released and can be found in an old abandoned house which happens to have a reputation for being haunted. Ma is still alive, though bruised and bloodied, but it quickly becomes apparent that his personality has changed significantly. The new Ma is bad tempered, violent, secretive, and has a strange habit of digging in the garden. Amy is convinced he has been possessed by some supernatural force from the old house, and pleads with Pit to continue investigating. He does, and uncovers a host of sinister and deadly secrets along the way.
“Victim” actually has a lot more to it than the above synopsis may suggest, and the plot does feature numerous unpredictable twists. The film is very much an exercise in suspense, and Lam throws in a fair bit of narrative trickery in his attempts to stay one step ahead of the viewer, and generally succeeds, although some of the plot elements seem to be thrown together a little haphazardly. The film does switch rather suddenly between its supernatural and crime thriller storylines, and at times the characters do seem to accept changes in suspected motivations from supernatural possession to financial gain rather too quickly. However, this does give the film an interesting, original feel, and Lam manages to keep an engrossing sense of ambiguity throughout without resorting to cheap trickery or too much outright deception of the audience.
Lam uses the horror elements of “Victim” chiefly to generate atmosphere, particularly through some locations which would be clich’d in their original genre, but which give a thriller such as this a different slant. His use of the deserted mansion, the windy graveyard and others does make things quite creepy, as does the generally dimly lit cinematography. The whole film has a subdued, sinister look, with extensive and effective use of shadows throughout. This certainly helps Lam to build the tension, and the film’s lighting, which like many other Hong Kong films of the period is predominantly green, is used quite cleverly to express and reflect Ma’s psychology.
Given the fact that the film focuses quite heavily on the character of Ma, it is fortunate that Ching Wan Lau turns in an excellent performance, striking the right note of blank, ambiguous menace that the role demands. Although at certain points he does tend to overact in terms of hysterics, in general his is a commanding presence which grips the viewer whenever he is onscreen. Amy Kwok is also effective as Ma’s wife, in a complex role which requires her to alternate between viewer sympathy and suspicion.
This is definitely more of a character piece than most of Lam’s output, albeit one which is designed to keep the viewer in suspense regarding motivation, as opposed to making any kind of statement on the human condition. The film is certainly well written in narrative terms, though it is quite obvious that the characters have been written not with realism in mind, but to drive the plot and to play specific roles in the viewer’s perception of events. Although the pace of the film is slow, Lam does throw in a fair bit of violence, though this is generally in the form of torture and isolated acts of brutality rather than the shootouts which fans may expect. Some of these scenes are actually quite unsettling, mainly due to the awful blank expression on Lau’s face.
“Victim” is a superior piece of Hong Kong cinema, and a huge improvement for Lam after his dismal U.S. outings. The film is tense and manipulative, effectively mixing elements of the thriller and horror genres to produce an unpredictable and worthwhile viewing experience.
Ringo Lam (director)
CAST: Tony Leung Ka Fai …. Pit
Ching Wan Lau …. Manson Ma
Amy Kwok …. Amy Fu