Wednesday, June 17, 2009

New York Asian Film Festival 2009 Review: Yau Nai-hoi's "Eye in the Sky"

Eye in the Sky (Gun chung). 2007. Directed by Yau Nai-hoi. Written by Yau Nai-hoi and Au Kin-yee. Produced by Johnnie To and Tsui Siu-ming. Cinematography by Cheung Tung-leung. Edited by David Richardson. Music by Guy Zerafa and Dave Klotz. Art direction by Raymond Chan. Sound design by Martin Chappell. Costume design by Mabel Kwan.

Cast: Simon Yam (Sergeant Wong/"Dog Head"), Tony Leung Ka-fai (Shan), Kate Tsui (Bobo/"Piggy"), Lam Suet (Ng Tung/"Fatman"), Maggie Siu (Madame Fong), Cheung Siu-fai (Chief Inspector Chan), Xie Xue Xin (Master's Wife).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

From Johnnie To’s mighty Milkyway Image film factory comes Eye in the Sky, Yau Nai-hoi’s tense and visually dynamic cat-and-mouse thriller which often gives the viewer a Big Brother view of the characters. Yau, a screenwriter of many of Johnnie To’s best films (Running Out of Time, The Mission, PTU, Running On Karma, Throw Down, the Election films), makes his debut as a director with this film. While Yau’s set pieces lack the visual flair of To’s films, as a whole Eye in the Sky is a lean, limber piece of entertainment that is a worthy addition to the impressive films emerging from this great production house.

The film opens with a great, nearly wordless opening sequence of surveillance and pursuit, but who exactly is the pursuer and the pursued is left teasingly unclear at first. It begins on a crowded streetcar, moves out into the street, and finally into a café, where it all is revealed as a test for Bobo (Kate Tsui), a rookie member of the Hong Kong police’s Surveillance Unit, a undercover force complementing the many street surveillance cameras manned by the Criminal Intelligence Bureau. Her boss, Sergeant Wong (Simon Yam), is her tester, the man we have seen Bobo following, and he peppers her with questions about what he did, where he went, and who he talked to. “Surveillance literally means ‘the eye in the sky,’” he tells her, stressing the importance of paying attention to every detail. However, under both of their noses, a jewel heist has been going on, masterminded by Shan (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who much like his police counterparts, has been keeping a close eye from above on the ragtag crew he has assembled to pull off the heist. It all nearly goes awry when one of the crew breaks their carefully orchestrated schedule to grab more goods. They manage to get away before the police descend on the scene.

Meanwhile, back at police headquarters, Wong (nicknamed “Dog Head”) and Bobo (whom Wong saddles with the handle “Piggy”) are given their new assignment: catching the gang of jewel thieves, who they have been led to by identifying one of the gang, “Fatman” (Lam Suet), who makes the cops’ job easier by going to the same mini-mart every night like clockwork to pick up his nightly snacks. Wong reminds Bobo that their job is undercover surveillance, not playing beat cop: they must stay focused on their mission and not get involved in anything else happening on the street. Not yet as hardened as her more seasoned superiors, Bobo can only watch in distress as thugs brutally beat down a man who owes them money. In a later scene, when the police have Shan in hot pursuit, Bobo breaks the rule of not getting involved, with very serious consequences.

Eye in the Sky (co-written by Yau and regular writing partner Au Kin-yee) moves with a breathless pace, its jagged editing and restless handheld camera giving it a nervier feel than the more classically composed films of Johnnie To. The film refuses to get bogged down in social or political analysis of the erosion of privacy represented by the all-seeing “eye in the sky.” Even though the film has been criticized in some quarters for not taking a stance on this subject, in this case it’s a refreshing asset. There are plenty of other films that deal with this subject, and if the filmmakers have nothing new to add, it’s better to just leave it alone instead of rehashing arguments that have been better made elsewhere. Yau is greatly aided in his rookie stint in the director’s chair by many members of the sturdily reliable stock company of actors To has assembled over the years, who give compellingly lived-in performances. Simon Yam is aces as the grizzled veteran cop; he reportedly put on 20 pounds for the part, although the extra weight looks like an ill-fitting fat suit. Tony Leung Ka-fai is a compelling live-wire as the criminal mastermind, his cool exterior barely disguising the feral animal underneath. Some of these To stalwarts shine even in smaller roles, such as the great Lam Suet as the constantly hungry jewel gang lookout, and Maggie Siu as Wong and Bobo’s hard-assed, foul-mouthed superior. Kate Tsui, a popular TV actress (and former Miss Hong Kong) making her film debut, is also excellent, beautifully handling her role as the true heart of the film, her character forced to learn very quickly on the job. Tsui more than holds her own with her seasoned co-stars; she took home a Best New Actor prize at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards. The film also won an award for Yau as Best New Director and an editing prize for David M. Richardson. Eye in the Sky once again solidifies the members of the Milkyway Image production company as some of the best in the business. As long as these master practitioners of action films are on the case, Hong Kong is assured of remaining a major player in world cinema.

Eye in the Sky screens on June 19 at 2:00 and June 22 at 3:35 at the IFC Center as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. Click here to purchase tickets.

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