Wong Yuen Yeung (Nick Cheung) gets a get-outta-jail card after doing 20 years for the rape and murder of a teenage girl called Yi Wan. He comes across Tsui Suet (Janice Man), a classical pianist who looks the spit of Yi Wan, and, like wow, crazy, she has the same father, Tsui Hon Lam (Michael Wong). So naturally Yeung follows her to her luxury home in the hills she shares with her parents and goes all creepily stalker, spying on her every move. Not long after Lam’s mutilated body gets fished out of Hong Kong Harbour and Yeung is suspect numero uno. But hard-bitten and world-weary detective (are there any other types?) Lam Ching Chung (Simon Yam) starts to think there might be more this lark than what is immediately obvious.
Right now on the ol’ telly-welly we are being swamped by crime thriller-y things, and from the comedic to the high-tech procedural, it’s still often par for course stuff. Of late though a certain cinematic artsiness has crept in: see Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, or any version of the Wallander series or, indeed, any of the Scandanavian bleak trots over to the darkside. These all have a wide range of movie and tv antecedents, from Silence of the Lambs and Seven, to the lush noir cityscapes of Michael Mann and the rural surrealness of Twin Peaks. Filming in these modern examples tends to the epic, sweeping and lush. It’s a kind of grittiness that distances itself through being almost romantically shot but which also revels in the shadows and what might lurk in them.
This kind of mood and cinematography bleeds into other culture’s interpretations of genre cinema. Johnnie To took Mann’s template and ran with it, probably, in some cases, doing it even better. And we know all about Scorsese and The Departed borrowing back.
So sometimes, yeah, it’s all fruitful and reflective and wonderful.
Other times it’s not.
Welcome to director Roy Chow’s Nightfall. Who knows what that really means here, except that night falls every now and then. Or a character falls in the night. Or something. Anyway, the one thing that does work here is Ardy Lam’s cinematography, which, except for the lurid glow of the opening sequence, is shot like Nordic Noir, all wide and wintery, pretty but unforgiving too.
Which would be fine if that was all in service to a film whose plot echoed the seriousness of the shots. Instead, though, we get straight up clichés and some rather silly scenes which seem constructed purely because someone saw it done elsewhere and thought it would be fun. Like the cablecar sequence between the two protagonists, suspected murderer Wong Yuen Yeung (Nick Cheung) and detective George Lam (Simon Yam). Sure it’s all a bit Hitchcock throughout this flick, but this is a scene that barely makes any sense. Why a cable car stand off interview scene? No reason except to throw some in Hitchcock-like shots and claustrophobic closed-room tension.
And that is the other thing. It’s an uneasy marriage between the modern European feel and the red herring old school Vertigo-like twistiness that Nightfall runs with. It’s a marriage, though, that is settled right into the film’s plot. Yeung is released from prison after serving 20 years for raping and murdering a young woman, Yi Wan,. Somehow he stumbles across another young woman who bears a startling resemblence to the murder victim. She is a classical pianist and, it turns out, the daughter of the father of the original victim, a renowned conductor. It’s a nod to Vertigo of course, but it also allows a ponderous European art school atmosphere bedded down in moody piano pieces.
And off we go. Anyone with a little bit of an ounce of familiarity with thrillers will see where the film is going long before it gets there. Which is always disappointing in a thriller, obviously.
So what, apart from the general prettiness of the proceedings, is worth noting here? Nick Cheung for one. With a role that is supposed to be tricksy and one we question, he pulls a lot out of that old trope and makes it almost fresh. Mmm, and that’s about it. There’s a kinda attempt to draw parallels between Cheung’s character and the oh-so-weary detective who has his own troubled relationships and demons. But it’s almost like an afterthought: it’s so barely explored, as if it’s there to add some depth the film knows it doesn’t really have. So it’s back to Cheung, whose motivation turns out to be the one note of genuinely touching and real emotion in the whole affair. Michael Wong as the opera-singing father whose body is fished out of the water all early on like is more hilarious than anything else, playing his psychotic dad role, all scenery chewing spit and screaming, that he undermines any real sense of threat.
Well, dear Heroic Cinema readers, I don’t know what else to tell you. Maybe I’ve made it sound so dreadful that you’ll avoid it like the plague. But there’s enough here that, maybe on a rainy Sunday afternoon, snuggled under a blanket on your couch, channel flicking, that coming across this flick might be a vaguely diverting entertainment.