[12 June 2012]
Fate holds special tortures for those who try to manipulate it. That’s what Ho Kwok-fai (Louis Koo), or The Brain, discovers in Pou-Soi Chang’s clever, moody, 2009 Hong Kong suspense thriller, Accident.
The Brain leads a team that stages assassinations made to look like accidents. Along with Michelle Ye, as The Woman, Suet Lam as the amiable Fatty, and Shui-Fan Fung as The Uncle, Ho brainstorms devious ends involving, say, falling window glass or the electric current of a train track through a wheelchair. In the hectic Hong Kong streets, during a traffic jam or a storm, freak tragedies don’t seem so implausible. Just like that—tidily, if messily—the world has one less mob boss or invalid father or anyone else a client might find inconvenient. If the job’s done right, when the hit is over, the cops have nothing to ponder except the vagaries of existence.
The problem with toying with destinies for a living, though, is that you’re prone to looking at destinies in an unbalanced way. And when we meet him, Ho is haunted by the car-crash death of his wife. With a professional appreciation for the clockwork precision behind seemingly random annihilation, Ho and his colleagues heavily suspect that her accident, too, was no accident—that Ho, indeed, may have been its intended target.
Such suspicions only deepen when one of the team’s jobs goes awry and a member is killed. Was it murder? Was it sloppiness? Was the deceased meant to be the deceased? Those questions bend Ho’s mind in the incident’s aftermath. He becomes an increasingly isolated, cold, concise surveillance machine. He may be on to something or he may be falling into a slough of paranoia, worse still when he spies a colleague mysteriously collecting a fee, and when Ho’s cash-stuffed safe is emptied during a burglary spree in his building.
In his tripartite state of victim, murderer, and survivor, Ho is a control freak losing control. He starts to trail an insurance agent, Chan Fong-chow (Richie Ren), a doppelganger of sorts with the vibrant, complete, and maritally blessed existence Ho feels he’s been robbed of. Ho connects the dots of his misfortunes and determines that Chan is a competing master conniver.
Koo’s Ho is taut, tense, his face a handsome, watchful mask down to its too-neat sideburns. Ye, as Ho’s female partner in crime, is splendidly cagey. Lam and Fung, as Fatty and Uncle respectively, are appealing and sympathetic in their key character roles.
The film’s action sequences—choreographed by Jack Wong Wai Leung, with visual effects overseen by Henri Wong—are methodically sharp, staged with the pocket-watch precision of a hit squad’s scientific ruthlessness. They have that Final Destination-type duality: You can’t look and you can’t look away, either.
But what draws us in emotionally is Accident’s deliberate, moody pacing and Yuen Man Fun’s heavy atmospheric cinematography. You can practically feel the sultry city air as Ho’s team preps for an evening hit. You can almost breathe the dust in their meet-up spot in a warehouse complete with a beat-up ping-pong table. Thanks to Martin Richard Chappell’s versatile sound design, Ho’s claustrophobic solitude in a rented apartment beneath Chan’s is muffled and amplified, literally, through his omnipresent headphones as the by-now battered Brain monitors the bugs he’s planted one flight up.
Also effective is the yin-yang dichotomy between Koo’s chilly performance and Xavier Jamaux’s lean, sweet piano-centered score. It points toward a tenderness we glimpse as Ho recalls his wife in flashback, offers a sandwich to Fatty, or tries to comfort The Uncle, who is becoming addled and forgetful. In classic noir fashion, we struggle with the cognitive dissonance of these calculating murderers’ admirable professional pride and human vulnerability.
The screenplay by Kam-Yuen Szeto and Lik-Kei Tang is a little awkward and heavy handed toward the end, but generally efficient and smart. The film as a whole is more than faintly reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 The Conversation. Consider not just the themes and the plot, but the melancholy music echoing the sad jazz saxophone in the Coppola film. The lengthy surveillance sequences. The montages of Ho patiently but tortuously plotting, planning, listening, and watching. The alternately gritty and glassy urban settings bespeaking daily drudgery’s war with corporate mastery. The disorienting juxtaposition of crashing mishaps and quiet, discreet micro-devices.
Ho’s business dress and gawky eye wear, even when he’s by himself monitoring Chan’s activities, echoes those of Gene Hackman’s somewhat wonky industrial-espionage mercenary in The Conversation. As do Ho’s ripening paranoia amid his spy equipment and the way he defaces his rental apartment as if seeking a tunnel from his hapless life into a better one.
Under Accident’s conspiratorial spell, are we imagining these similarities, which feel like inspiration and homage, not burglary? Could the parallels really be, well, accidental?
The apt twist, of course, would be if Hollywood co-opted the Hong Kong co-option of Coppola in an American remake, with even more souped-up Rube Goldberg-esque “accident” sequences.
It could happen, right? After all, cinematic schemes, like vengeful ones, are hatching all around us.
DVD extras include a few variations of a “making of . . .” featurette that has some snappy manipulated still shots interspersed with trailer clips, and the director and prime cast members all complimenting each other on their genius and versatility and outlining the plot in a bland way. There are a few fun glimpses of the tech crew creating a heavy rain with industrial hoses and so on, but you’ll find little enlightenment here. It looks primarily like promo filler for indie film cable channels.