Tuesday, September 20, 2011

HK Cinema at SFFS: Punished

Wong Ho-chiu is the sort of tycoon who has an ex-con on staff, just in case things need taking care. Indeed, they will. The iron-willed developer is not the sort of man you want to make an enemy of. Yet a small band of kidnappers does exactly that in Law Wing-cheong’s Punished (trailer here), which screens Saturday night as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s Hong Kong Cinema series.

The hard partying Daisy Wong expects her father to fund her dissolute lifestyle, despite her frequent tantrums. Wong is not inclined to indulge her, but his younger second wife and bodyguard-slash-whatever Chor do their best to cool his temper. When she is abducted, he half-suspects she is complicit in the crime. Alas, not so. After things go profoundly badly, the distraught Wong turns to Chor to provide him a measure of justice, revenge, or closure. For Wong, they are all more or less the same thing.

Produced by HK action auteur Johnnie To, Punished is quite restrained compared to his thematically related Vengeance. Indeed, Punished is more in the tradition of the moody, psychologically tormented first Death Wish film, rather than the body count-generating sequels that followed. Still, Chor has a job to do and he is the man to do it.

To regular (including in the aforementioned Vengeance) Anthony Wong is about the flintiest, steeliest older cat appearing in film today. He makes Tommy Lee Jones look like a weak-kneed old softy. While as hardnosed as ever, Wong (as Wong) forcefully conveys the father’s grief, guilt, and existential self-doubt, shockingly so, in fact. Likewise, Richie Ren (another To regular) is quite compelling and grounded as the avenging everyman anti-hero, Chor. Law and screenwriter Chi Keung-fung wisely hint at his checkered past and strained personal relationships instead of spelling out his back-story in painful detail. When the game is on though, he is all business. In the solid supporting ensemble, Maggie Cheung Ho-yee (the other one) also makes a strong impression as Wong’s smart, sophisticated pseudo-trophy wife.

While Ren administers some serious beatdowns, Punished is really a dark morality play about the ultimate costs of retribution. It might end on a nakedly manipulative note, but Wong and Ren totally sell it, nonetheless. A raw, muscular film, Punished is definitely one of the highlights of the SFFS’s HK series. Highly recommended, it screens Saturday night (9/24) at the New Peoples Cinema.