Thursday, December 26, 2013

Accident

One thing about picking up movies or TV series from the library is that you're never quite sure what will come to hand. There are all the common titles, of course - heaps of them - but many of those we've seen and don't want to see again, and others are ones we don't want to see at all.

So you have to take a risk, sometimes, and just go for something completely unknown, like the Soi Cheang film, Accident. Who's Soi Cheang? Well may you ask. His full name is Pou-Soi Cheang and he's a Hong Kong film director, assistant director, screenwriter, script supervisor, and actor. He directed Accident, and even though the fact that it's a film made in Hong Kong might lead you to believe it's going to be some cheesy, stunt-filled piece of fluff, it actually turns out to be a classy thriller. 

It has a sharply-written script that only gives away its secrets gradually.  It has a couple of truly surprising twists, and an ending that turns everything on its head.  As we watch we think we understand what's going on, and the characters themselves believe they know what they're about.  And then it all starts to unravel, both for the characters and the viewer.  

Primarily the film concerns a team of four, three men and a woman, who work together to produce accidents that cover up murders. These accidents are highly complicated and involve split-second timing to work. (In retrospect, they also rely on not a few coincidences, but let's not concern ourselves with that, as the film doesn't.) After an accident involving an unidentified woman at the very beginning of the film, we're led into a complex and puzzling sequence in which a man, held up in traffic, is killed in a 'freak' accident. We learn that he was a triad boss, so we don't feel too badly about his death. The team gathers together after the accident to debrief, and the young and handsome boss of the group complains about 'Uncle', an old man who has left a cigarette butt behind at the scene - which the boss has picked up, to avoid leaving any trace of the team's presence. This is the first indication that things might not be going well.

A second murder/accident is planned: a middle-aged son wants to get rid of his elderly and crippled father, who, as far as we can tell, has the son under his thumb, especially financially.  The team don't ask why he wants to murder his father - that's not their business, although as it turns out, it might be wise if they did know. This second murder seems almost improbable in its execution, but worse, it turns into an even more improbable additional 'accident' that may or may not be an accident, and in which one of the team is killed. Is someone else playing them at their own game?  Is it insurance agent the son keeps visiting over the next few days and weeks? 

From then on things get complicated, for the characters and the audience. Not complicated in the sense that we don't understand what's happening, but more in the sense that we have to keep questioning our assumptions about what we've been told. Cheang continually presents us with options - are we reading the story correctly? (There's a short sequence towards the end where we discover that not only are we reading things wrongly, but the main character is too.) He uses dazzling film techniques based on the best masters to present the story, and to continually undermine everything. 

Hitchcock is one model - there are Rear Window and Vertigo echoes throughout - but other more recent directors are summoned up as well. Cheang has learned from the best, and incorporated these lessons into a masterly style.  Cheang has been an actor in around forty films, though seldom in leading roles. He's worked as an assistant director on another thirty, and directed sixteen. The man is busy. Yet Accident shows no sign of a man in a hurry: every detail is important (though we don't always pick up on the details at the time) and shot after shot shows a director who has an eye for the right angle, the right framing.

Yes, looking back on the story there are things that are a little impossible, but in the course of the movie - as is so often the case with a film or a play, where we just accept that what happens makes sense - you take these events as right for the occasion.  The actors bring an intensity to their performances that carries us through the sticky bits, and visually the film is outstanding - another way in which we're distracted from any anomalies in the storyline.

By all accounts, Accident is one out of the box for the Hong Kong movie industry. It's certainly worth checking out.

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