By way of full disclosure: When Overheard 3 arrived in Australian cinemas and distributor Magnum Films were kind enough to send me a ticket for review, I was worried. I hadn’t seen the first two films, and this is generally a recipe for incomprehensibility as far as the third is concerned. I saw the first installment on iTunes as prep, and then discovered that I needn’t have worried: writer/director duo Alan Mak and Felix Chong have crafted a series of films that share their three lead actors and some broad thematic elements, but that stand alone as far as the plot is concerned.
It’s an echo of their work in the excellent Infernal Affairs II and III, which they also wrote, and Alan Mak co-directed with Andrew Lau. These focused in on different characters within the world of the original film, fleshing them out and exploring similar themes from different angles. The new wrinkle in the Overhead series is that these new characters are played by the same three key actors: stick a different pair of glasses and a bit of a limp on Louis Koo and voilà, new character. Our trio of recurring faces are Louis Koo, Sean Lau Ching Wan and Daniel Wu.
So, to summarize: you don’t have to have seen the previous films to go and see Overheard 3. It’s still on in cinemas as of this writing, but I’d get a move on before it disappears!
Overheard 3 follows the exploits of the Luk brothers, four lads from Hong Kong’s New Territories who like drinking and prostitutes and fairly uncomplicated involvement in organised crime. Keung (Lau Ching Wan), perhaps the most level-headed of them, wears wonderfully lurid suits and works as trusted lieutenant to Uncle To (Kenneth Tsang). Uncle To is busy constructing an elaborate property deal, scheming to turn thousands of Ding House land grants in the New Territories (given by the government to the first-born sons of locals) into giant high-rise apartment complexes, worth hundreds of times the land value.
Also working with the Luks is Jau (Louis Koo) who has just done five years in prison for manslaughter, having taken out a landowner who had been in a position to cause trouble for Uncle To. Jau has become disillusioned with his lot, and plots to take down the Luk brothers with the help of an elaborate surveillance operation constructed by Joe (Daniel Wu). Joe is exactly the kind of long-haired hacker in a minibus full of monitors that you organise for that sort of thing, though confusingly he’s apparently a different tech dude named Joe than the one Wu played in Overheard 2.
Mak and Chong explore the same sort of story here as in the film’s predecessors, combining a complex web of crime and interpersonal relationships with modern high-tech surveillance, and exploring the issues of trust, greed and control that result. Joe’s little devices — most of which really do exist, though they’ve been simplified for the screen and involve way too much soldering and screens displaying HACKING COMPLETE — create a sort of modernised panopticon, allowing Lau to watch everything that the Luks do, from their offices and cars to live views of their smartphone screens. The filmmakers have quite a bit of fun with this concept, with one scene in particular that made the audience roar with laughter.
Though less focused than the original Overheard (and sadly without the extra amusement value of Michael Wong gnawing at the scenery as the Big 1% Crook), I actually found Overheard 3’s more expansive feel and backstory more compelling. We’ve all seen a squillion HK police dramas and surveillance has often been used very well as a story element, but I don’t know much about the New Territories, and the land grants and their attendant right issues, corruption and naked greed make for a completely believable setting.
The production itself feels like a bit of a throwback to HK’s pre-handover crime films, a sensation that’s enhanced by a parade of supporting actors from HK classics (including Ng Man Tat as a particularly slimy lawyer), periodic flourishes of melodrama and the occasional high-octane action sequence, culminating in an absolutely unbelievably amped-up finale which I won’t say anything about.
Performances are largely good, with Louis Koo’s Jau handling the bulk of the work this time around, although Daniel Wu has his moments. Mainland Chinese actress Zhou Xun is hugely likeable as an indomitable single mother with a strong business head on her shoulders, but the other supporting figures (including all the Luk brothers other than Lau Ching Wan’s Keung) are a bit underwritten and not given the time onscreen to develop much beyond their initial characterisation.
Alan Mak and Felix Chong have certainly established themselves as very capable writers and directors, and Overheard 3 is a solid film, though it treads a path we’ve already seen them go down in previous works. The NT setting gives this particular film a different spin, though, and I do have to say that the lead trio are far more fun as criminals than as cops.