Once bitten and could have been twice shy, but lessons learnt from that experience will prove rewarding. Writer-Director Roy Chow's first foray into the Hong Kong crime thriller genre with the film Murderer could have been an impressive debut, boasting Aaron Kwok as a leading man after his stellar outing in C+ Detective, but alas was let down by what would be a débutant's relatively naive handling of the big reveal in a mystery that's set up for a big wow, but only to fall flat and too hard against the required suspension of disbelief. But in his second attempt with co-writer Christine To, they had come up with a better story and while no instant classic, had all the right ingredients put in for a taut, pacey thriller from start to finish.
Nick Cheung is going places albeit going dangerously close to repeating himself at times. The film opens with a gritty, prison bathroom fight where his buffed and mute Wang goes up against a group of bullying goons. This prologue doesn't tie in too closely with the film proper and stands out by itself, but nobody's complaining for the hard hitting fight scenes here where Cheung gets into a close quartered survival battle if only to cement his character's reputation as a mean machine. He's released from prison after 20 years for a crime he claimed to have not committed, but admitted guilty to anyway, involving the horrific rape and murder of his lover Eva (Janice Man) at her family home. He soon finds himself stalking a teenage pianist Zoe (also played by Janice Man) who bears uncanny semblance to Eva, and discovers that her dad is none other than Eva's dad, the acclaimed pianist Han Tsui (Michael Wong).
Han Tsui is soon discovered murdered in most gruesome fashion - burnt, drowned, void of prints - near his mansion, and the film proper gets underway where two murders under the same family tree gets investigated by detective Lam (Simon Yam), who reopens Wang's 20 year old case while investigating into the current one. You'll know that they're related in some way, but the journey this film takes is to understand the Whys and the Hows, which both Roy Chow and Christine To managed to pull off yet another surprise and twist in their story, but one that is more palatable, direct, and handled with a certain finese when compared against their clunky first time endeavour that drew more laughter instead. Things are kept suspenseful with Chow pulling off atmospheric moments, though at times lapsing into horror film territory with overzealous jump cuts.
But he is slowly showing his ability in crafting action sequences, from the bathroom brawl the opened the film, to the highlight which is the cable car rumble at Ngong Ping, which had noticeable CG involvement (a pity that the landmark is now closed for an indefinite period of time for servicing). Foot chases scenes were also handled deftly, with Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi chiming in with a punchy score heavy on the drum beats to accentuate that systematic cat and mouse game played out, and relentless pursuit by cops with escape at the nick of time episodes. I would even go out to say if not for Umebayashi's score, this film would have felt robbed of a key element And of course they now have two acclaimed actors to thank for this as well, hooking you in with their charisma and engaging screen presence. Simon Yam bears a grungy, bearded look that fits in with an experienced, tired cop who's facing problems with his teenage daughter, and carries an emotional baggage that's relatively unexplored with the death of his wife, if only for this to serve as fuel for his desire to dive deep into the unsolved cases at hand. Gordon Liu also pops out for a cameo as an ex-cop there to jog Lam's memory of a series of events that ties both Lam and Wang even closer than imagined to the 20 year old case which will unravel itself from fuzzy still photo shots in the opening credits, to full blown revelation as time goes on.
Nick Cheung has his character's vocal chords taken away from him for his role here, and has to rely on everything else, especially on his facial expression, to bring you to his cause, and keeping you wondering just how involved or guilty his character is, being the number one creepy stalker who sneaks into everyone's home, and leave you wondering just what his game is in his deliberate leaving behind of clues, or blatant attacks against cops. Needless to say his limited face off scenes opposite Simon Yam were the most delicious to watch. He's a relatively late bloomer in the industry, but is now growing in stature and fast becoming one of my favourite actors from the territory.
The film's theme deals with family relationships especially that between fathers and daughters that is central to the entire plot, in having no less than three prime case studies put on display. Michael Wong chips in as the hypocritical man you'll grow to love to hate, and the Cantonese version here (I can imagine how awfully dubbed he is going to sound in the Singapore Chinese dubbed print) plays up to that hypocrisy very well. To lighten things up at times in this sombre film, Kay Tse plays a token female cop opposite Simon Yam's Lam who clearly develops feelings for the widower but got spurned at every turn, so stay tuned when the end credits roll for that little bit of closure here.
Roy Chow may not bear the pedigree of other crime thriller filmmakers in Hong Kong yet, but he's slowly and surely getting there. If this doesn't become an instant box office success (already released commercially in Hong Kong), it has definite legs to become a cult classic with time. Recommended!