From the outset, Cold War is an ambitious effort. Its big budget execution sets a bar that the narrative tries – and in some respects fails – to achieve with its high-scale intrigue and cast of dozens. For a non-Chinese speaking audience it’s not the easiest thriller to follow (I couldn’t even guess at what it’s like for the Chinese speaking one), which detracts a little from the overall enjoyment of the tense and tightly paced drama.
To set the scene, we are treated to an organisational structure chart, the punchline of which seems to be that Hong Kong’s modern police force is virtually controlled by two different factions – Police Operations, headed by a magnificent Tony Leung Ka Fai as Deputy Commissioner Lee; and Police Management, headed by a smooth, cool-headed Aaron Kwok as Deputy Commissioner Lau. Both men are highly capable and highly respected, but when it comes to how to do things, they clearly don’t always see eye to eye. So, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that these two are going to lock horns at some point, and the perfect catalyst for this cage fight is the kidnapping of a van of fully equipped police and a possibly related terrorist bombing in Mong Kok’s Broadway Cinema.
Conveniently enough, the soon-to-retire Police Commissioner (Michael Wong) is out of the country making statements to international communities regarding Hong Kong’s high standards of domestic security. When the crisis hits, Lee assumes the role of Acting Commissioner (well within his rights) but as we soon discover, one of the captured officers is in fact Lee’s son, bringing into question his objectivity. However, it also hints at the true purpose of the kidnappers. The timing is all a little too convenient, or at least that’s what Lau suspects. He has grave misgivings about both the direction of Lee’s investigations and the level of response initiated, and begins his own inquiry with the intention of holding all the right cards when it comes time to make a move against Lee’s right to command.
It’s at this point that you may find yourself wishing you were rewatching Infernal Affairs again instead, because as soon as Lau does take over, suddenly suspicion starts to shift. Maybe Lau’s ambitions would extend so far as to arrange a kidnapping? He has just as much to gain from the exposure a successful high profile case would gain him as Lee does, he’s younger and even has the support of the Secretary of Security (Andy Lau possibly trial running a career change into politics).
Soon after a botched ransom drop, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) get involved, making accusations that Lau is in fact somehow on the take when in actual fact he looks to be the victim of an elaborate set-up. Audience suspicion shifts back to Lee again, but instead of cutting to the chase, the script continues to twist and turn. Things happen with almost rapid fire succession, until you think you maybe have a grasp on what is going on. Or wait. Maybe you don’t.
This kind of deliberate manipulation of audience expectation and preconceptions isn’t new, and it can make for a brilliant ride, as that aforementioned Alan Mak/Andrew Lau film and possibly everything made by Milkyway Image ever can attest. But it does take a very controlled hand to pull it off coherently, and unfortunately director/writer team Longman Leung and Sunny Luk are perhaps a little too ambitious for their own good. Not that everything else about this film isn’t top notch, and it’s that fact alone that will probably leave you scratching your head. Great cinematography, brilliant sound design, fantastic performances, and some crackling on-screen tension should be all a good film needs. There is a superbly shot action sequence on a freeway overpass, where the kidnappers make it plain that what they really want is Lau dead, and both Kwok’s guilt-ridden Lau and Leung’s fatherly, authoritative menace are commanding enough to maintain focus, but much of what else transpires is so layered as to be virtually opaque.
Sure, you may spot the twist long before it reveals itself (a throwaway line involving a certain character’s IQ was my give away) but working out whodunnit and watching the good guy triumph despite the stacked odds are completely unrelated things. Cold War’s overly complicated narrative restricts your ability to put the pieces together yourself at a pace with the focal character, and instead of having that “Ha!” moment at the end, you’re more likely to be going “Huh?”.
Cold War has screened as part of the current Action, Hong Kong Style cinema program at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. The program ends early November but there’s still plenty of seriously awesome films to go, so check out the website for details and get yourself along!