Friday, August 13, 2010

Chik juk ging wan (1997)

Jade Leung is Inspector Cheng Hsuen; and one morning during a car escort of a criminal turned state witness, she and her colleagues are attacked by the criminal's former colleagues. Well-armed and armored, the criminal crew with a fury of bullets attempt to kill their former member. They succeed in killing many of the officers in the escort, while Leung's Hsuen keeps many of her assailants at bay, using her vehicle as a shield. While the sound of automatic gunfire keeps most passersby away, one gentleman (Mark Cheng), armed with a video recorder, creeps closer to the action. He moves dangerously close to Hsuen and the action and has become fixated with a sole attraction: Inspector Hsuen's legs stemming from her short skirt. Hsuen survives the shootout with a bruised wrist while many of her colleagues were slain. The curious gentleman with the video camera has ignited his psychotic obsession and now has targeted Hsuen in Chik juk ging wan (The Peeping Tom) (1997). Chik juk ging wan is a Category III film from Hong Kong, directed by Ivan Lai Gai Ming. For those unfamiliar with Hong Kong's rating system, here is a wonderful description:
Hong Kong films are divided into three rating categories. Each category is denoted by a roman numeral set in a simple geometric symbol, which grows increasingly angular as it becomes more restrictive. Nobody much cares about the difference between Category I (a single stick in a cute round circle) or Category II (two sticks in a less-friendly square). But the Category III rating (three sticks in a sharp-edged triangle) means under eighteen types are verboten. Public service announcements in HK depict teenagers unceremoniously ejected from theaters showing such fare, not to mention the life-sized cardboard cutout of a stern-faced police constable often present in the lobby. Most Category III films are cheap, rapidly made, soft-core ninety-minute wonders, usually featuring instantly forgettable starlets. These are manufactured and consumed with the fanfare of a bowl of instant noodles: boil water and scarf'em down. Sometimes gore is added to the mix to spice things up. Much as we salute the exploitative spirit--the "ghoulie, roughie, kinkie" mantra--most of these films are a waste of time. The catchall category also serves as an "NC-17" category, and some worthwhile films do end up with the stigma of the Triangular Triple-I, like Jacob Cheung's award-winning Cageman, a sensitive look at life in Kowloon's infamous Walled City. The film features no sex, violence, or nudity, but was rated Category III solely because of its inventive use of Cantonese slang! (from Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong's Mind-Bending Cinema by Stefan Hammond & Mike Wilkins, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, pp.238-39.)While it does at times seem an arbitrary rating (Wong Kar-wai's Chun gwong cha sit (Happy Together) (1997) is Category III while John Woo's extremely violent Dip huet seung hung (The Killer) (1989) is Category IIB), most of the films that I've seen with the rating exploit the content restrictions (excessively sexual and/or violent) and go over the top. Within the category, however, there are some filmmakers like Herman Yau who push the limits of the film's content but also take advantage of creating more provocative and daring stories to match the action (his Bat sin fan dim ji yan yuk cha siu bau (The Untold Story) (1993); Gong Tau (2007); Tau chut (The First Seventh Night) (2009); and Tung moon (Rebellion) (2009) are stellar examples). From its first act, it appears that Chik juk ging wan has a daring and provocative story to match its content. The casting of Jade Leung in the lead role is essential: not only is Leung dead sexy but also capable of generating an amazing intensity with accompanying emotional performance (her riff on La Femme Nikita, Hei mao (Black Cat) (1991), opposite Simon Yam, is less conflicted and more focused: she appears a born assassin with a singular, violent intensity.). What the gentleman with the video camera fails to recognize as he obsesses over Leung's legs at the shootout (as does the viewer) is that there is a specific reason why Leung's Hsuen survives the incident: she's a stellar cop. It's a clever ruse on the part of director Lai: he masks Hsuen's capabilities by shaping her image through the eyes of both his killer and his viewer. The gentleman with the video camera is the "peeping tom," of the English-language title; and he is a nasty one: a serial killer/rapist with a leg fetish. Cheng's killer is off-kilter, methodical, and obsessive as he is able to subdue his victims quite easily with his tricks and brutality. However, his obsession causes him to appear to lose focus in his method: he actually shows at the crowded police station to confront Leung and play some mind games, but she immediately picks up his weird vibe and comes close to catching him right then and there. Cheng's killer sees Leung's character as nothing more than a beautiful woman, and when the two have a confrontation, she is far from a helpless victim. Chik juk ging wan, up until its first half, appears as if it is close to becoming a fascinating exploitation film that belongs to that rare class of its type: a film which engages openly in exploitation while also simultaneously commenting upon the nature of its exploitation: it creates a very hypocritical dichotomy yet can be fascinating and disorienting viewing.During its second half, however, the film falters and ups the ante on its exploitative content and loses focus of its main conflict between Leung and Cheng. Leung disappears for most of the second half while Cheng's character goes on the tear and performs some truly repellent acts against woman victims. It appears that those behind the camera of Chik juk ging wan just gave up: they chose to become conservative by focusing on depicting extreme behavior almost exclusively. This fails ultimately to be provocative or interesting. It should be noted that Chik juk ging wan is extremely well-shot and composed, and this makes the film all the more disturbing. It's obvious that it was made by creative people and it could have been more daring in its execution. Jade Leung is amazingly charismatic and is the attraction here, but she fails to save this one; and Chik juk ging wan would have faded further into obscurity without her presence.

No comments: