Sai Gau (Max Zhang) is a violent police detective who narrowly avoided jail-time for the involuntary manslaughter of a corrupt colleague, whose daughter (Cecilia So) he now supports financially, out of a sense of duty rather than guilt. With an empty personal life, a single-minded approach to his job, a disapproving, pencil-pushing boss (Lam Ka Tung) and a debt-ridden partner on the cusp of an early retirement (Wu Yue), he is dead set on bringing Shing (Shawn Yue), a cruel gold smuggler, to justice. Shing has just gotten rid of his mentor (Tao Bo) and his rival (Derek Tsang) ; he’s now aiming to get to a $50 million stash of gold hidden in an underwater cache in the high seas (thus out of police jurisdiction), and belonging to Triad boss Blackie (Yasuaki Kurata). The violent cop and the brutal smuggler are on a collision course.
With its dark, almost phantasmagorical approach to the crime procedural, its elaborate fight scenes and its central theme of greed, Jonathan Li’s The Brink could fit snugly into the S.P.L. thematic franchise – and it’s not surprising that is was produced by Soi Cheang. First-time director Li bathes the whole film in strong blood-red, gold and sea-blue hues, making the three S.P.L. films look like holiday videos, and recalling Dante Lam’s baroque That Demon Within. It’s not a subtle approach, but it’s a very effective one, with key scenes – like the discovery of hanged bodies in a forest or a brawl in an abandoned building – right out of a horror film. And though the plot mostly deals in platitudes about greed, and tropes already overused in Hong Kong cinema by the end of the eighties (the reckless cops butting heads with the pencil-pushing superior, the brutal hero with a conscience, the once-reliable partner compromised by rapacity…), the high-sea angle is not one often used in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, and makes the film stand out.
There are also breathless, bone-crunching action scenes handled by the brilliant Nicky Li Chung Chi, in the same balletic but grounded, heightened but hard-hitting style as S.P.L. 2: A Time for Consequences, and once again making glorious use of Max Zhang’s nimble power. Parkour is heavily and beautifully featured in chases across fish markets and marinas, while a parking lot fight and a finale on a boat rocked by a massive storm, are among the best action of 2017. Max Zhang makes the most with his thinly-written role, shining as a reckless, amoral cop with a heart beating faintly but surely. He is well-matched with an impressive Shawn Yue ; the sometimes bland Yue here creates an impressive villain, a dead-eyed amphibian who only answers to the Goddess of the Sea, and thus sticks to no moral code existing on land. Though Janice Man is entirely wasted as his – oddly lovestruck – sidekick, it’s good to see old wolf Yasuaki Kurata and erstwhile Hong Kong action cinema fixture Tai Bo, while Wu Yue seems to have replaced the now all-too-rare (on the big screen at least) Fan Siu Wong, as the salty supporting martial arts actor of choice.
Long Story Short: Thinly-written though it may be, The Brink offers strikingly baroque visuals, bone-crunching action, an unusual high-sea angle and the low-key but effective match-up of Max Zhang and Shawn Yue. ***1/2