Sunday, October 07, 2018

Sitges ’18: The Liquidator

Apparently, it is tricky for Chinese film producers to bundle up character rights when they option a novel, judging from Lei Mi’s Evil Minds novels. Much like the competing adaptations of the Ghost Blows Out the Light books, a television series and its sequel already predate the two films that released last year in China, from completely different production teams. This one is running far ahead of its competition (titled Guilty of Mind), likely due in part to the involvement of super-producer William Kong. Following its American release, Xu Jizhou’s The Liquidator (trailer here) screens during this year’s Sitges Film Festival.

Despite his brilliance, Fang Mu was cut loose from the police force when he became a suspect in the disappearance of an accused child rapist. However, he was just too smart to let him go completely, so they keep him on as a side consultant. Mi Nan will be the latest cop to seek his gruffly arrogant consultation. Of course, they do not get on well at first, but they come to respect each other over time.

As things often happen in mystery novels, Mi Nan’s current case and the missing suspect that indirectly led to Fang Mu’s ouster may in fact be related. They soon discover there is a psychopath loose in the city. He preys on the notorious, whose actions brought harm to others, but escaped punishment, except for an online pillorying from the outraged Netizens.

Xu offers up some earnest finger-wagging regarding online shaming and harassment, but Liquidator has neither the seriousness or the heft of a film like Chen Kaige’s bizarrely under-appreciated Caught in the Web. For the killer, Jiang Ya (whose identity is revealed early in the second act), motivation and logic are rather slippery and inconsistent. Frankly, it makes no sense how he could continue to maintain his credibility as “The Light of the City” after a truly awful murder of a complete innocent. The crime is also a buzzkill for viewers, for multiple reasons.

Deng Chao is just okay as the shaggy, world-weary Fang, but Ethan Juan Ching-tien is only incrementally darker and more intense as Jiang. In contrast, Vicky Chen (Wen Qi), who was so extraordinary in Angels Wear White and The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful, is again altogether electrifying and heart-breaking as Liao Yafan, the victim of the missing perp, who Fang subsequently adopted. Karena Lam is also quite haunting as Jiang’s (almost literally) petrified wife, Wei wei, while Cecilia Liu Shi Shi is appealing tough and forceful as Mi Nan (and she has a nifty opening chase scene).

Ironically, The Liquidator really makes us curious to see Guilty of Mind, because it has a lot of promising elements, but neither Deng or Juan really click in their roles, despite the spectacularly brutal fight scene between them Xu stages. It also takes itself a bit too seriously, missing the irony of its rousing defense of the rule of law (surely all the human rights attorneys and HK booksellers being held incommunicado would desperately like to have a little bit of that). Still, there are a few shocking twists and several terrific supporting turns that redeem The Liquidator as a VOD movie, but everyone in Sitges should prioritize newer films when it screens tomorrow (10/8) as part of the festival.