Credits aren't everything of course, but when I see Shawn Yue listed as the semi-villain in a Pou-Soi Cheang produced crime/thriller, there's really no reason why I wouldn't give this film a chance to prove itself. Jonathan Li's The Brink [Kuang Shou] seemed to be a return to form too. Not for Li mind, but for Hong Kong cinema as a whole, which has been stumbling for the past couple of years. And sure enough, The Brink delivers in spades. When the stars align, there's no other country that can make better action flicks than Hong Kong.
Hong Kong cinema is a well-oiled machine. The problem with machines is that they aren't very flexible, so whenever change is abound they starts to stutter. Hong Kong's worst cinematic periods are always marked by some kind of big industry (or even social) change (the crash of the Shaw Brows empire, the handover between the UK and China and, more recently, China's cinematic rise). Their most thriving periods come after years of honing certain styles, skills and genres. With China becoming such a big player in recent years, Hong Kong has struggled to keep the machine going, but 2017 has been a very hopeful year.
These dry spells also have a positive side to them though, namely the rise of young and upcoming directors. Though painting Li as someone who is new to scene may not do him enough credit. While this is Jonathan Li's first feature as a director, he has amassed an impressive list of second unit/assistant director credits in the past 15 years or so, working together with some of Hong Kong's greatest directors. Ranging from Tsui Hark, Johnnie To and Wai-Keung Lau to, who would've guessed, Pou-Soi Cheang (on Dog Bite Dog and Shamo no less). It's safe to say Li deserved his shot at greatness.
The Brink follows a mad police hunt on a gang of gold smugglers, who run their operation from their boats disguised as simple fishermen. Two cops (one of his last day of service - sounds familiar?) are chasing these criminals, but they have other problems to worry about. The crime boss is planning his retirement and his underlings are all eyeing his position. Wen Jiang is set to be the next leader, but before long a hit is planned on his life. Feeling betrayed, Jiang plans his revenge while trying to keep out of the cop's hands. It's not a very novel plot, that much is clear, but for a film like this not much more is needed.
On a stylistic level, it's clear that Li worked under some of Hong Kong's brightest talents. There's a lot here that reminded me of early Cheang films, which is a big plus in my book. Smart and evocative camera angles, very strong use of color and lighting and snappy editing make for a film that looks stylish and cool. On top of that, the action choreography is very creative (even adding some underwater scenes) and the setting is gritty, dirty yet still appealing. The Brink is a visual tour de force from start to finish.
The soundtrack is more in line with other Hong Kong offerings. It's not particularly bad, it's functional, but in the end it's ultimately forgettable. It drives up the tension when necessary and it makes the action scenes a bit more exciting, but you'll be hardpressed to remember any particular track or instance that stands out from the rest. It's a traditional problem for Hong Kong scores and even though it doesn't take much away from the film, it's missed potential that could've further elevated The Brink.
Rising star Zhang Jin does a great job as the film's lead, Janice Man, Gordon Lam and Yasuaki Kurata make notable appearances in secondary parts. But the one actor that stands out is Shawn Yue, portraying a stone cold yet just and honourable criminal. I haven't seen him play the villain too often, but he's an absolute natural. He looks menacing and dangerous, a force to be reconned with. Because of that, the final showdown between Yue and Jin is extra memorable, elevating the film above its (many) peers.
The Brink isn't earthshattering, nor is it terribly original. It's a pretty basic crime thriller with a traditional selection of action scenes spread throughout the film. If this isn't your type of film, The Brink isn't going to show you much that could change your mind. If, on the the other hand, you like to spoil yourself with a gritty action flick from time to time, Li's first is one of the best options 2017 has on offer. It's a masterclass in Hong Kong crime and action cinema and it bodes well for Li's future.
If you're a fan of Pou-Soi Cheang's earlier work, this is one of the easiest recommendations to make. It's not quite as spectacular as Dog Bite Dog or Shamo, but it comes pretty damn close. Li delivers a fun, gritty and stylish crime flick with some very impressive action scenes and a stand-out performance by Shawn Yue, on top of a very solid cast. More importantly though, it's another sign that Hong Kong seems to be coming to terms with China's rise and that it's finding ways to be itself again. If the past is anything to go by, this spells great things for the near future of Hong Kong cinema.