Cop thrillers with even the slightest dash of decent drama are pretty hard to find, but Kuang Sheng made a commendable effort when he directed Kingfisher [Yu Gou]. Taiwan is slowly expanding its reach into genre films, mostly following Hong Kong's guidance but also maintaining a distinct national signature. The result here is a classy, exciting and extremely well realized film that doesn't immediately wow, but convinces nonetheless.
Drama seems to be just another genre cliché when it comes to cop thrillers. It's necessary filler to keep them from becoming full-fledged action films, but more often than not it's so badly executed that you might start to wonder why they even bothered with it. Even high-profile films like Heat seem to be affected by this, so it's quite surprising to see a relative newcomer like Kuang Sheng deliver a pretty effective mix of both genres.
When A Gou moves with his soon-to-be wife to a new town, he joins the local police force. On one of his first jobs he tricks a young boy, Yu Zai, to confess the murder on Zai's younger sister. A Gou is torn apart by guilt which slowly destroys his relationship, meanwhile Yu Zai grows up to become a small-time thug. The two meet again ten years later, setting in motion a series of fatal events.
While not a very original premise the story and characters are handled with sufficient respect. At times Sheng loses himself a little too much in plot complications, but from every twists comes an interesting extra layer deepening the dramatic impact of the film. It's also nice to see the film is rather unapologetic when it comes to finishing off some of its main characters, making the outcome somewhat unpredictable until the very end.
If there is one certainty, it's that Sheng has complete control over the visual side of things. The film looks absolutely lush, each scene feels like another opportunity for Sheng to show some visual grandeur. Excellent color handling, superb camera work and some very interesting shots can be found throughout the film. Each and every scene is a true delight to behold, which lends the film plenty of additional atmosphere.
The score is equally classy, yet a little on the safe side. Soft piano music to accompany the more dramatic scenes, some darker tunes during the action-oriented parts. It works very well within the film but it doesn't leave a very lasting impression. Not that I'd expected a very experimental score for this type of film, but when all is said and done I prefer a more challenging musical experience.
Acting is solid and convincing, bringing some much needed credibility to the film to bridge the more far-fetched plot complications. The main characters are evenly matched, making the chase all the more interesting, supporting roles are pretty well cast too, bringing a welcome change in scenery from time to time. Excellent work from this rather young cast.
Actual plot progression isn't all that fresh or original, Sheng remains pretty close to what can be expected from the genre, but the ending is still a pretty effective twist. Nothing defining for the appreciation of this film, but well-executed nonetheless. There are a few surprises along the way that made a bigger impact, but they lie closer with the drama part of the film. The cop/chase part is nice but nothing spectacular.
If you like cop thrillers with a raw edge (think Pou-Soi Cheang's Dog Bite Dog) combined with a stylish execution (think Johnnie To's trademark style) then this film might very well be for you. Just don't go in expecting to be blown away by the story or by the final twist, it's really not that kind of film.
Sheng delivers a visually superb film, provides a good score and a set of strong actors. The drama element is impressive for this type of film, the thriller elements are more than sufficient. There are no real weak points here, the only thing missing is a more distinctive voice to separate it from other commendable genre outings. Still, it's a fine addition to your collection if your into this kind of thing and it might even surprise those with little affection towards the genre.