Things move fast in Time and Tide. Tsui Hark’s buddy-action movie is all about keeping up. If you’re not wild about one plot, you might find something to like in another, and if one male lead doesn’t appeal to you, well, there’s another. And if the first pregnant woman isn’t so interesting, well, there is a second. And if none of these storylines is your cup of tea, no matter. Just watch and listen—the speed and color and tumult will carry you.
Time and Tide marks the Vietnamese-born Tsui Hark’s return to Hong Kong after making a couple of Jean Claude Van Damme movies, Double Team (featuring Jean Claude and Dennis Rodman’s unforgettable climactic tussle with a Coke machine) and Knock Off (actually shot in Honk Kong, with Rob Schneider and Lela Rochon alongside the scrappy Van Damme, who plays a fashion designer—“strange” doesn’t begin to describe it). The new movie is surely less strained than the U.S. productions, but it is a curiosity in itself, brimming with themes, in-jokey references, and desires, not all of which are crystal clear. Then again, this loosey-goosey verve has a certain offbeat appeal. Its buddies and action are too irregular to be predictable, and yet they also fit something approximating a formula—boys-bonding, boys-ass-kicking, boys-finally-realizing-the-importance-of-family-and-friends.
The buddies are 21-year-old bartender turned bodyguard-for-hire Tyler (the Cantonese pop star Nicholas Tse, who also appeared in 1998’s Young and Dangerous: The Prequel and 1999’s Gen X Cops) and Jack (Taiwanese rock star Wu Bai), a young Taiwanese mercenary who spent some time in Brazil training government soldiers, before returning home disillusioned. Tyler and Jack’s affiliation is accidental, but their loyalty to one another grows exponentially, in relation to the overwhelming firepower visited on them by Jack’s former associates, led by the surly Miguel (Couto Remotigue, Jr.). These guys, you learn through flashbacks, seem able to take out armies without breaking a sweat—not exactly guys you want to mess with if you can help it.
Of course, messing with them is inevitable, though the route to this confrontation is convoluted. The film opens with Tyler, working at a bar and ruminating on the beginnings of the world. Within minutes of first appearing on screen, he’s spent the night with an undercover lesbian cop, Jo (Cathy Chui), and she turns up pregnant. When he offers financial and emotional support, she turns him away. And so, the determined father-to-be is reduced to skulking around her apartment door, under which he repeatedly slips wads of cash (which are promptly chewed up by her dog). This money comes primarily from Tyler’s new gig as a bodyguard, working for his Uncle Ji (Hong Kong movie-villain veteran Anthony Wong), whose other “employees” are scary thug-types who owe him money. Tyler looks relatively clean-cut compared to these guys, and he’s certainly not so experienced in shooting guns and looking ferocious, but adapts quickly to his new environs and co-workers, and proves to be a super-crack shot and martial artist as well. Who knew?
One of Tyler’s first assignments is to guard the influential triad boss Hong, whose estranged daughter Ah Hui (Candy Lo) has married Tyler’s buddy-to-be, Jack. Tyler and Jack’s coincidental meetings (there are a few jumbled together, including a chance meeting at a supermarket) lead to a serious male-bond, occasioned by the fact that Jack’s former associates have arrived in town, looking to force his cooperation on one last job, namely, assassinating his father-in-law. When Jack resists, the big meanies kidnap Hui, who happens to be very pregnant at the time. Hui’s condition reminds Tyler of his own idealized lady-love (the very one who wants nothing to do with him), and so he convinces himself that he must help Jack to rescue her.
In search of a huge stash of money ($10 million) hidden in a locker at the Kowloon Train Station, everyone ends up at the station, where Hui goes into labor, her water splashes all over the floor as Tyler drags her to relative safety in a back room. He then works valiantly to help her give birth, and the scene is not a little awful: his arms are bloodied to his elbows, as her screams give away their position. Tyler soon realizes that someone needs to keep watch while he delivers the baby, and his drastically ingenious solution is to give Hui his gun, so that, between contractions, she can shoot down anyone who pokes his head in the doorway. While this image of the violent collision of life and death will remind some viewers of Christopher McQuarrie’s much uglier version of same in Way of the Gun (and in Hong Kong last year, both movies were reportedly in release at the same time), it actually extends the metaphor, in that Hui does give birth and the infant becomes yet another element that Tyler must juggle while awaiting Jack’s arrival on the scene.
As the above (incomplete) summary demonstrates, Hark’s storylines (this one is scripted by Koan Hui) tend to be simultaneously fractured and lushly romantic (not unlike those of his Hong Kong action contemporaries, Wong Kar-wai and John Woo), and his attentions tend to focus on displacements and crises. He’s best known for his wuxia pictures (Swordsman II and Dragon Inn) and his Once Upon a Time in China series with Jet Li, all of which display Hark’s interests in brash stylistics as content: the actual narratives are less interesting than the techniques he comes up with to tell them. Together with co-cinematographers Ko Chiu Lam and Herman Yau, Hark here develops a peculiar hybrid of corny romance, bad fx (the burning building effect is straight-up lame), and seriously dynamic action scenes, all enhanced by fashionably jaggedy editing, timelapse speediness, slow motion, and ridiculous (in the good way) camera angles.