Noir is back and even Hong Kong cinema has jumped onto the bandwagon. The latest film to join the select group of dark-edged films digging into the Asian underworld of crime, crooks and nooks is Chi-kin Kwok's The Moss [Ching Toi]. A film not afraid to glorify the ugliness of what lies below the mask of a bustling city, revealing a hidden world of people living on the edge of society.
If you feel the need to compare this film, there is no better option than Pou-Soi Cheang's Dog Bite Dog. Both films share a pretty identical setting and styling. A certain grainy darkness that pours from every shadow and character. It's still a little strange seeing this type of film emerging from the Hong Kong film scene, which is usually more taken with sparkling and well-washed celebrities doing their thing.
The Moss finds itself dealing with Jan, an undercover cop turned bad. Part cop, part criminal and completely lost. In love with one of the whores from a whorehouse he raids from time to time with his chief in command, he goes about his life and job as if he has little left to lose.
Things take a turn for the worse when the son of a local mobster goes missing. When she starts pulling some strings Jan ends up in the middle of a violent little mob war. And to add to the fun, some young Pakistanis are aiming to take over control of the neighborhood with the help of a rather shady killer for hire. Throw in some heavy contrast with a 12 year old girl representing purity and you have all the ingredients for a gritty tale from the slums.
Visually there is plenty to enjoy here. Kwok finds the right balance between shaky, close to the skin hand-held action and clean, controlled camera work. His use of color is pretty much perfect, with warm, deep color contrasting the heavy and shadowy blacks of the gloomy setting. It dictates the feel and atmosphere of the film, making the somewhat improbable story that much more believable and immersive.
The soundtrack is equally nice. Dark, brooding and just a little off-beat. Not too present or dominating, but doing a good job of enhancing the already gritty atmosphere. Acting is overall strong too, especially Shawn Yue who's putting in quite an effort. Even though his character is hardly original he knows how to put in some genuine intrigue and emotion. The supporting cast is just as dedicated to keeping the quality of the film high, with a neat little cameo of Eric Tsang to finish it off.
The film takes a couple of strange turns in the middle. The addition of the Pakistani gangsters is a little odd, so is the beggar/killer character. But through the lock-tight atmosphere it never becomes too weird or alien. Kwok hurls his characters from gritty slum to slum but keeps a tight focus on the different story lines waiting to hit each other dead on, never letting the film meander too much.
The Moss is not a wildly original film, but executed so well that it impresses from the very first seconds right until the final credit fades from the screen. Kowk's direction is marvelous as he lets nothing slip by. A tightly paced story, good acting, solid soundtrack and visual splendor are all part of the fun. It never turns into a true masterpiece, as some elements do feel a little quirky and the story does take some strange directions, but it's good to see people follow in Cheang's footsteps. There's a bright future for HK noirs, if you pardon the pun.