Have you noticed how the last few years have seen South Korean cinema fall under the influence of the great Hong Kong crime thrillers of the 1980s and early-’90s? Whether it’s in a stylistic and/or thematic shout-out or a straight-up remake of a classic — like Son Hae-sung’s A Better Tomorrow or the upcoming 3D remake of The Killer (nooooooo!) starring Jung Woo-sung — the Korean industry owes a lot to the trail blazed by John Woo, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To. That Korean crime thrillers have eclipsed Hong Kong’s star is less disheartening than cyclical. Japan has had its day in the genre, and Monga may be a signal that Taiwan is on the cusp of its own time in the criminal underworld sun.
So perhaps it’s time for Hong Kong filmmakers to start dipping into the Korean pot. To whit, Punished, the latest by Law Wing-cheong coming from To’s Milkyway factory. Law has been kicking around for years, working as a second unit director and AD on some of To’s best (Election, The Mission) and directing some middling films of his own (Running out of Time 2), so he’s had some excellent on-the-job training. Punished, in short, is a Hong Kong spin on a Korean revenge thriller.
Wong Ho-chiu (Anthony Wong) is an autocratic real estate developer (read into that little nugget what you will) who brings new meaning to the phrase, “iron fist,” a trait that extends to his family. He makes his underlings threaten villagers off their land and instructs his children as to what they’ll be studying in university. His second wife is a trophy and his daughter Daisy is acting out by doing lots of drugs, shopping too much and defiantly making plans to run off to Bolivia. The only person to whom he affords any respect is his driver and on-call thug Chor (Richie Ren). Chor’s an ex-con and the opposite of Ho-chiu in that he would give his right arm to leave his past behind and have a better relationship with his partially estranged son. Ho-chiu enlists Chor’s help in exacting revenge on the mysterious cabal that kidnaps Daisy for ransom and then kills her anyway. Release the hounds! Well, hound.
The novelty of Punished is how it trolls the same waters as its Korean counterparts but is fixated less on the mechanics of vengeance as it is with its emotional toll. Who is punished, who is punisher, and why are not as simple as they could, or should, be. Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil aimed for similar effect but wound up wallowing in degradation for degradation’s sake. Which is not to say Punished is totally free of moments of cringe-worthy brutality, but they’re far less vivid than Kim’s. But Law is blessed by having Hong Kong veteran Wong in his cast, and that goes a long way to giving the script more weight than it may actually have.
Wong, and writers Lam Fung and Fung Chih-chiang, keep Ho-chiu’s redemption at bay until the last possible minute, and there’s actually a moment where you wonder if he will in fact achieve it. As Ho-chiu becomes increasingly wrapped up in vengeance, it’s up to Chor to try and rein him in. Chor understands the nature of violence and what it does to a body in a way that the more sheltered Ho-chiu does not, and the contrast between the two provides the crux of the internal, emotional drama. Chor’s conflicted over carrying on with his task, but does so anyway because that’s the kind of job his past actions allow him to be assigned. Ho-chiu’s epiphany, that what he’s doing is wrong, self-destructive and simply pointless, seems to come from left field but it’s rooted in a genuine, however bizarrely manifested love for his daughter that Wong has taken great pains to establish.
Ren has hinted at an ability to show the kind of nuance he does here in recent roles (Sniper, Fire of Conscience), but it has always been in films where the action was more crucial to the proceedings. This may also be the first time he’s co-starred with an actor of Wong’s calibre almost exclusively, and it pays off; the quiet moments where the two men ponder life, family and justice are among the film’s most affecting. But it’s still not a Johnnie To movie, though it tries mightily to be. The lighting is there, so is the camera work (by Ko Chiu-lam, To productions The Longest Nite and Expect the Unexpected), and obviously the same masculine dynamic that has defined most of his work (and Woo’s and Lam’s etc, etc). It just comes up a tad short on those little touches, the visual language, that say so much more than dialogue does and give To’s work such impact. It’s Law’s best film, but he doesn’t get a cigar just yet.