THE TROUGH (2018) review


Nick Cheung’s third film as a director and star, The Trough follows Yu Qiu (Cheung), a cop who’s been undercover so long in the gangs of the fictional Solo City, that his mind is starting to slip: he’s developing a death wish, the limit between the Law and Crime has been blurred out, and between two missions he goes to live as a hermit in the Namibian desert, fighting wild animals. Solo City is a degenerate, crime-riddled sewer, and there’s no shortage of mob bosses for him to take down, under the orders of his handler Jim (He Jiong), a lone man of honor assisted by hacker Jackie (Yu Nan) but surrounded by dirty cops (including Maggie Cheung Ho Yee and Chris Collins). Yu Qiu’s new mission is to unmask and bring down “The Boss”, the hidden mastermind who controls Solo City; and the key to bring him down may be a little girl (Li Yongshan), who was plucked from an orphanage for mysterious reasons, and is now wanted by dirty cops and half the city’s gangsters alike.

As a director, Nick Cheung certainly doesn’t lack ambition, nor does he lack vanity. His directorial debut, Hungry Ghost Ritual, was a solid and low-key effort; it was followed by Keeper of Darkness, a bigger, more assured horror film, of which The Trough is definitely the crime thriller counterpart. In both films, Cheung takes the lead and plays a Christ-figure, carrying within himself all the woes in the world, but doing so with a wry smile and devil-may-care outlook sometimes belied by moments of faltering agony. In the former, he’s a ghost whisperer, and in the latter an unstoppable, amoral one-man army, mowing down endless adversaries with a rough kind of swagger. The film’s Max Payne-inspired, paroxysmal baroque neo-noir style, with quasi-monochrome cinematography, constant torrential rain and a soundtrack (by Benson Chen and Chan Kwong Wing) which oscillates between heavy metal, spaghetti western and on-the-nose use of existing pieces of music (when will Bach’s Suite N°3 Aria not work great on a shootout?), The Trough is always verging on parody. Nick Cheung wants you to know that this film as been directed. That it never slips into involuntary hilarity is down to his own gently-twisted sense of humour, which permeates the film, alleviating the explosive self-seriousness in key moments.

Action is abundant, verging on overload. Choreographed by Bak Ju-cheon and Yu Sang-seob (regular collaborators of Korean action maestro Choi Dong-hoon) it blissfully merges the bullet-downpours of John Woo with the unforgivably bone-crunching, flesh-cleaving edge of recent South Korean action cinema. Particularly memorable are a knife fight between Nick Cheung and cameo-ing Philip Ng, Yuen Wah letting loose with a meat-cleaver in a kitchen, Cheung and Li Haitao pummeling each other in an alleyway, a elaborately over-the-top car chase in which the little girl in the backseat unexpectedly enjoy the vehicular chaos, or the opening laundromat shootout, a gloriously ridiculous, hard-hitting and bloody statement of action intent. Sure, there’s often unsightly CGI blood, while the murky, near back-and-white of Cheung Man Po’s cinematography can sometimes obscure the fighting happening on screen, and Nick Cheung’s character is a bit too indestructible to give the action scenes real urgency, but still, such unabashed bombast has a way of winning us over – especially when it comes with offbeat moments and touches of dark humour.

The script (written by Cheung and Wen Ning), unfortunately, cannot sustain the film’s overwhelming sense of style. For almost an hour it’s an episodic narrative, which is obviously meant to properly introduced Yu Qiu’s fractured psyche and near-martyr commitment to his undercover missions, while setting the nefarious, teeming stage that is Solo City. But when it’s time for the main plot to start, there’s simply not much to chew on: plot holes and head-scratching narrative shortcuts abound (the character of Jackie the hacker has the mere purpose of providing endless ex-machina help to Yu Qiu), key plot twists and late revelations fall flat (all the fuss around “The Boss” ends with a thud), and a repetitive grind settles in: how many times do we witness Nick Cheung entering a secured building out of nowhere and with complete ease, to gun down everyone in it? The film’s conclusion strives for epic but comes off as belabored, far-fetched and a clumsy shift to morality (no doubt for the film to secure a Mainland Chinese release), after an hour and half of ruthless amorality.

Still, a wide, rich cast goes a long way. Apart from Nick Cheung, a fine He Jiong as his deadpan handler and a steely Maggie Cheung Ho Yee as a dirty cop, most have only extended cameos, but this serves to flesh out the film’s universe better than the script can. Michael Miu makes a strong impression early on as a world-weary mobster, while Lam Suet does his welcome shtick as a nine-fingered rival. Paul Chun is an oily, jovially-menacing official, Ni Dahong a shifty gangster, Louis Cheung great fun as a dim-witted henchman (who makes a fun reference at Nick Cheung’s character in Johnnie To’s Election), and it’s a joy to see Yuen Wah light up the screen as a vicious mobster. Sadly, Xu Jinglei and Yu Nan, two of the finest actresses working today, are both wasted: the former is all velvet menace but not much else in a role that is grossly under-written despite having a central importance, while the latter is a glorified plot device, though she makes the most of it as a brittle yet resourceful hacker. At the center of it all, Nick Cheung radiates his typical wry charisma, and while The Trough is far from perfect (and was a box-office failure both in China and Hong Kong), we’re curious what other genre the actor/director will tackle next.

Long Story Short: Spectacularly over-the-top, often verging on parody, The Trough benefits from abundant action scenes, a welcome sense of humour and a rich cast, but is ultimately let down by a clumsy script which cannot sustain Nick Cheung’s paroxysmal sense of style. ***

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