Right from the start, “Wo Hu” has two things counting against it, namely the fact that it is yet another Hong Kong crime film about undercover police infiltrating triad gangs, and perhaps even more seriously, it is produced by none other than the notorious Wong Jing, a man whose name conjures up visions of ass-pinching slapstick and men in chicken suits rather than gripping drama. Fortunately, the film has a steadying hand in the form of director Marco Mak, who previously worked on Wong’s “Colour of the Truth”, easily one of the best films to emerge from the shlockmeister’s production house.
“Wo Hu” also benefits from an excellent cast of big name stars, as well as the fact that although it certainly falls back on familiar themes, it features a reasonably complex plot which at least attempts to offer the viewer something a little different, rather than simply restating the obvious fact that the lot of the undercover policeman is not a happy one. Indeed, the basic premise on which the film is sold actually turns out to be somewhat misleading, since it focuses almost entirely on the gangs themselves, following them being brought down as a result of internal conflicts rather than any kind of police effort.
The twist offered by “Wo Hu” is that instead of dealing with just one or two undercover officers, it ostensibly deals with a thousand, following a massive police operation to infiltrate and crush all the triads in Hong Kong. As impressive as this might sound, it should be noted that the film is actually only concerned with a handful of such figures, and focusing on the operation to tackle one gang in particular, with Inspector Wai (Miu Kiu-Wai) taking on underbosses Jim (Eric Tsang), Walter (Francis Ng), Tommy (Julian Cheung) and Fei (Jordan Chan) in the usual game of cat and mouse. The narrative comprises of a variety of subplots involving these main characters, revolving around a vicious internal power struggle and the inevitably tragic repercussions of Jim’s decision to send a young thug named Killer (Shawn Yue in a small role) after a suspected undercover agent.
Although the obvious inspiration for “Wo Hu” would seem to be the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy, which is cheekily referred to on a couple of occasions, the film is actually closer to Johnnie To’s recent “Election” and sequel, as it deals mainly with the lives of the gang bosses themselves, both criminal and personal. The upside to this is that Mak manages to avoid the usual dreary genre cliché involved in hammering home the duplicitous and depressing lives of double agents, and instead delivers a far more interesting set of characters. This makes for some morally interesting viewing, even though Mak does overdo the theme of triad bosses as human beings, especially during some of the bizarre and bewilderingly random romantic scenes between the gentle criminal with a heart Jim and an unconvincing window dresser (former Miss Hong Kong Sonija Kwok, probably one of the least likely women to go weak at the knees for the short, aging Tsang).
The theme of policemen and triad members being similar is given another airing, though it is played out here to better and more moving effect than might have been expected, with the dark secrets of Inspector Wai’s past providing a thoughtful counterpoint to the actions of the all sharing, all caring gangsters. Wai’s relationship with Walter is certainly one of the stronger of the various subplots, with the differences between their two sons being used quite nicely for further emphasis of the film’s basically human approach to the subject matter.
It’s fair to say that “Wo Hu” is not quite as dramatic as it has the potential to be, mainly due to some uncertain pacing and clumsy shifts in tone. The proceedings tend to lack focus in a way which suggests that the film would have been better off without the thousand undercover policemen backdrop, as this seems to make Mak feel as if he needs to throw in montage scenes every now and then showing mass arrests and street battles. Although these do help to inject a little action into what is essentially a talk-driven character piece, quite often they serve in a counterproductive manner to undermine some of the hard-won emotional impact which is so obviously being strived for.
As such, it does at times feel like Mak is trying to cover too many bases, something which is all too common with Wong Jing productions. However, this doesn’t detract too much from the film as a whole, and at least pushes things even further away from the usual ground already covered by countless similar efforts. The end result is that “Wo Hu” offers solid entertainment and an interesting spin on an increasingly tired scenario, and whilst perhaps not as engaging as it could have been, it certainly deserves extra marks for not taking the most obvious route.
Marco Mak, Guangli Wang (director) / Tut-hei Tang (screenplay)
CAST: Jordan Chan …. Yau Chi-biao
Julian Cheung …. Tommy
Timmy Hung …. Eric
Sonja Kwok …. Elaine
Xiangjin Luo …. Tat Mui
Kiu Wai Miu …. Wai Ding-bong
Wei Na …. Martin
Francis Ng …. Wah Chiu
Hailu Qin …. Sophie
Eric Tsang …. Lai Gai-cheung
Shawn Yue …. Knife