I sat down to watch Eye in the Sky at the 2007 Sydney Film Festival and overheard a conversation behind me from two older ladies, who’d evidently set up base camp in the State Theatre and were watching their way through the entire Festival program. “Where’s this one from?”, one asked. “Hong Kong.” “Oh, so there’ll be lots of flying around, then?”
Sigh. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a lot to answer for. There’s no flying around at all in this film, a police procedural from long-time Johnnie To collaborator Yau Nai Hoi, whose writing credits include both Election movies and Heroic Cinema favourite The Mission, among others. This is his first time in the director’s chair, though with Johnnie To producing and a host of his regular actors filling out the cast.
Our story concerns a young lady known only by the pseudonym of Piggy, played by Kate Tsui. At the start of the film, she joins the police surveillance unit run by Doghead (Simon Yam), a fatherly, good-natured fellow who also happens to be incredibly good at his job.
She’s put to work on street surveillance straight away, tracking a group of criminals who’ve been pulling off high-profile robberies in Hong Kong. They’re soon able to pick up the trail (Lam Suet does rather stand out), but the group are obviously being masterminded by someone well-aware of close-circuit cameras and police response times. Enter Tony Leung Ka Fai, quickly nicknamed the Hollow Man, directing his crew of thieves from rooftops near their targets.
First up, the film looks rather good. You can imagine the cinematic possibilities afforded by a plot based around surveillance — lots of hidden cameras, strange angles and aggressive editing — and Eye In the Sky does a good job of taking advantage of all of them. Even the cuts between scenes show the screen dissolving into monochromatic CCTV footage. Unfortunately, the story just doesn’t do the subject matter justice, very quickly becoming a rather run-of-the-mill HK cops and robbers film, the like of which we’ve seen many times before. The beginning of the film is great, showing Piggy’s induction into Doghead’s group and their chase to identify the group of thieves. After that, though, the film sags somewhat, slowing down and becoming more predictable.
Simon Yam is great as the paunchy, intelligent Doghead, running his crew of plainclothes policemen like a well-oiled machine. Tony Leung Ka Fai is less interesting as his adversary; we’ve seen him play much more interesting gang-leaders before, like in Election, for example. Similarly, Kate Tsui is cute and works hard, but just doesn’t seem to have all that much to do — she’s the wide-eyed new cadet with talent who makes occasional mistakes, and that’s about it. Many of the characters just feel a little short of development, and I think that the film would have been so much better for a little more work on making the story more inventive.
But for all that, it’s not a bad show, and certainly very good for a directorial debut. See it for another different persona from Simon Yam, and for that slightly prickly feeling that everyone around you is a policeman and you’re being watched by nine cameras at once.