PAY BACK (2013) review


A Mainland Chinese production starring mostly Hong Kong actors and with the kind of urban, contained storyline you might expect from a Milkyway Image production (which it isn’t), Fu Xi’s Pay Back – also known under the equally generic but much clumsier title Hunting Enemies- is an often puzzling film. Its plot is nothing new, but has a potential for grit and poignancy. It concerns Yang Yan (Francis Ng), a taxi driver bent on getting revenge for the rape of his daughter (Chen Yirong), that led to her suicide and his wife’s (Cynthia Khan) subsequent fatal seizure. His main target is Zhang Jin (Fan Siu-Wong) a triad henchman with father issues, who it turns out is innocent but took the fall for his boss Borther Hai (Chang Cheng). Zhang Jin aims to make amends and clean up his life, and out of guilt (he didn’t commit the rape but did witness it without doing anything to prevent it) he helps Yang Yan in his quest for revenge, all the while trying to dissuade him from taking the violent way out.

Though the plot sounds fairly simple when laid out like this, Pay Back is told in non-linear fashion for much of its short runtime, alternating between past and present without obvious visual clues (no black and white for the scenes in the past, for instance), which lends an air of complexity to the proceedings, when actually these are all underdeveloped characters playing out a generic storyline. The presence of scene-stealing martial arts actor Fan Siu-Wong in a lead role could make you expect an action film, but Pay Back is devoid of any fighting or shooting, save for Fan’s quick escape from a mob boss’ residence and a short exchange of gunfire at the end. The film just simmers along, frustratingly never developing into anything compelling despite its engagingly mysterious opening moments. The cast is what prevents it from being a painful bore, with a dour and intense turn by Francis Ng, whose team-up with Fan (who holds his own and proves he doesn’t need fights to be an appealing actor) could have been an interesting one, in a better film. As a side note, the presence of Cynthia Khan in the film has a bittersweet feel to it : while it’s nice to see her again after a nearly ten-year hiatus, her role here has so little screen time, and she appears so changed by plastic surgery, that it’s hard to imagine her making a proper come-back.

Long Story Short : After an interesting start, Pay Back proves muddled and inert, held together only by Francis Ng and Fan Siu-Wong’s engaging presence. **

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