Friday, August 21, 2020

Fantasia 2020: 'A Witness Out Of The Blue' Movie Review

Fung Chih-Chiang’s A Witness Out of the Blue has all the earmarks of a classic Hong Kong crime saga. There’s murder, slick production values, a twisting plot, shades of moral ambiguity, standoffs, shootouts, and a parrot. Wait, what? 

Yes, you read that right. A Witness Out of the Blue is a strong, labyrinthine Hong Kong action thriller, only one of the key witnesses in a causal murder is indeed a parrot. If this sounds like some mis-matched cop-with-an-animal-partner farce, that’s the wrong idea. There is remarkably effective comedy to find, especially as it relates to the bird, but Fung, who both directed and wrote the script, balances it with the darker criminal element, using the laughs more as punctuation than relying on the absurdity. The result is an off-kilter peculiarity that transforms the film from a good-but-standard jaunt in the genre into something that stands out from the crowd.

Detective Larry Lam (Louis Cheung, Ip Man 3) is something of a laughing stock in the department. Not a bad cop, he’s just kind of goofy, and has earned the nickname “Garbage” from an earlier posting, warranted or not. He’s also the kind of guy who borrows money from a loan shark to start a cat rescue on his roof. Three months earlier, a violent crew led by Sean Wong (Louis Koo, Drug War) robbed a jewelry store. Now they’ve resurfaced and are dropping like flies and the only witness is the aforementioned parrot. And, of course, the only cop willing to talk to a bird about a murder is good ol’ Larry Lam.

Again, the plot isn’t nearly as ridiculous as that sounds. The film plays out largely as serious parallel storylines. Larry Lam investigates the crimes from the police side, while Sean Wong tries to unravel the same mystery form the other side of the law, and for his own reasons. These missions often put both at odds with Larry’s chief, Yip Sau-ching (Philip Keung, Firestorm, SPL 2), who also wants revenge against Sean. It’s a coiling, turning narrative that initially seems obvious, only for the script to dish out new information that shifts perspective and illuminates heretofore unseen corners, deepening the whodunnit. 

As complicated as all that already sounds, there’s even more going on. There’s a whole aside with Sean taking an anonymous room in a boarding house with 80, 90, and 100 year old roommates. It’s a credit to Fung, both his script and his direction, that the film never bogs down in what, on the surface, looks like superfluous filler. Sean’s dynamic with his fussy landlady, Joy (Jessica Hsuan, Hero), could easily be trimmed from a narrative angle, but it develops the character and enhances a number of thematic concerns. Fung parses out just what we need and maintains the forward momentum. Like with the comedy, he never overuses these side threads or overstays in any scene, but they all mean something and add texture and depth that sets A Witness Out of the Blue apart from similar tales.

Cheung plays Larry to a tee, walking a delicate middle ground between super cop and bumbling oaf. He’s kind of a screw up, but not completely; he has a bit of a cowardly streak, but can be brave when necessary. Sure, he’ll show a mug shot to a bird to see it’s reaction, but he’s not the wacky comic relief animal guy who wants to put a parrot on the witness stand. It’s a convincing relatable everyman; he just sort of shows up to work, does his job, makes some mistakes, gets other things right, and goes home to his cats. Larry is most of us.

Koo is equally fantastic, though in a different fashion. Sean’s a criminal, one who never shies away from violence when called for, but he also legitimately cares about his landlady and even his outlaw cohorts. Koo perfectly captures the stone-faced badassery of the character, while also nailing the sea of feelings raging just below the surface. While he first appears the cold, calculating mastermind chasing unseen enemies, thanks to Koo, he winds up the main emotional center of the movie. And he earned a Best Actor nomination at the 2020 Hong Kong Movie Awards for his effort. (As did Philip Keung for Supporting Actor, and a number of other participants.)

More a crime thriller peppered with action beats than a balls-to-the-wall action extravaganza, A Witness Out of the Blue looks great. Glossy in that particular cool Hong Kong style, cinematographer Kenny Tse (SPL 2, Ip Man 3) makes use of the striking skyline, tight back alleys, dingy apartments, and unique, distinctive features of the special administrative region. And when the fists and bullets fly, action choreographer Jack Wai-Leung Wong (Wolf Warrior 2, Operation Mekong) delivers the goods.

Fung creates a messy moral world, full of questions without easy answers and a hazy line between right and wrong, law man and crook. A cop can be in debt to a loan shark but not be entirely corrupt. A criminal can be a vicious felon but also capable of at least partial redemption, moving from a tender, quiet encounter to an eruption of startling violence, and back again, in quick succession. No one is all good, no one is all bad, things are complicated and not always how they appear, and Fung and company capture that reality.

A Witness Out of the Blue stands as a stronger-than-average Hong Kong crime opus, sprawling, thrilling, and tense. But while it hits typical genre markers, there’s also a sincere emotional core and enough earnest oddities and strangeness that it’s never overly rote. Well balanced on an edge of familiarity and freshness, it satisfies on multiple levels. [Grade: B+]

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