The New York Asian Film Festival ran from August 28 to September 12. For more information, please click here.
There’s a lot of things to be cherished about classic Hong Kong cinema, and a lot that has been stolen by far less talented would-be artists. But for my money, one of the most underrated aspects, and one that has yet to make it across the pond, are the whiplash inducing tonal switches that every longtime fan has experienced and come to appreciate.
Post-1997, productions have gotten slicker and more expensive and that kind of live wire, make it up as you go along energy is in pretty short supply. But it still pops up from time to time, in admittedly far more controlled doses.
Which is my elaborate way of saying that A Witness From Out Of The Blue is way more badass than I was expecting a movie about a parrot who witnesses a murder
The first image is of a CGI spider being consumed by a bunch of CGI ants, leading into the inciting murder of criminal Homer Tsui in a brief cameo by Deep Ng. The second is our hero being chased by a loan shark that threatens to rape his cat.
Our hero, who in the next scene, slips on some blood and falls face first onto the corpse from the opening scene.
And I was thinking ‘Oh, this is going to be a goofy comedy, all right, I like this energy, I’m on board’.
But rather unexpectedly (and, it has to be said, in a not entirely unwelcome manner), that is about the extent of the broad comedy in the film. In fact, A Witness From The Blue reveals itself to be a serious minded mystery thriller, packaged with a fairly absurd plot twist that serves as more of a misdirect towards the films true intentions.
Part and parcel to that, it turns out that our hero isn’t actually our hero at all. Or, at least, not the protagonist. No, that honor belongs to Louis Koo as Sean Wong, the criminal being hinted by police for the murders, and desperate to clear his own name. It’s Koo whose investigation we wind up following far more than Larry Lam (Louis Cheung), the bumbling investigator nicknamed Garbage for his declining reputation.
This bait and switch invests the film with a certain urgency as Wong admittedly has more at stake than Lam does, but it leaves his character in an odd position: he’s basically a comic relief character who is stripped of the comedy aspect. Which only adds to the uniqueness of the films tone.
With Wong being the axis upon which the rest of the movie swings, the role of antagonist shifts to Lam’s boss, Inspector Yip (Phillip Keung), who like Sean Wong has a personal stake of his own: Homer Tsui, as it turns out was part of Sean Wong’s gang who participated in a jewelry store robbery that ended with several of his men dead. Yip seems convinced that Wong is offing his own partners to collect their share of the loot, and his determination to bring him to justice threatens to degrade into full-on obsession.
These, along with Lam’s loyal former partner Charmaine, who helps him out with his investigation and tries to awaken his long dormant sense of duty, are the key players. But like any decent mystery, there are a ton of other characters involved, victim and suspect alike, charting a colorful course through the proceedings.
At times the film feels like a nonstop parade of cameos, everyone showing up to do their little bit and then being rushed offstage so the next person can do their thing. Sam Lee (in an even smaller role than his already pretty small role in the fun punch-’em-up Unleashed, which also premiered during the festival) barely gets a word in before his character makes a swift exit, and so it goes with the rest. But with so many fun semi-bit parts and mystery that just keeps rolling, it’s hard to complain too much.
So there’s the goofiness of the parrot, the hard edge of the procedural elements, and the character actors gleefully hamming it up. But the fourth leg of this triangle (look, just go with it), and an even bigger paean to the days of old, is the sheer volume of melodrama on display here. There’s something very old school Hong Kong cinema about the pile up of plot points; the interplay between Koo as Jessica Hsuan as Joy, the mercenary landlady whose apartment complex Sean Wong hides out at while he investigates is enough in itself to fuel its own Nicholas Sparks movie. Providing at least a little of the humor that went missing pretty early on in the film, Hsuan steals her every scene.
Without giving too may of the films secrets away, by the time we get to the big reveal, the ultimate solution to the mystery both plays completely fair and also seems besides the point. It’s only in those final moments does the byzantine structure of the mystery break down and the film takes on a more chaotic sheen that feels of a pell-mell piece with the flicks of old. Not to say that it’s not satisfying in its own way; given the pileup of plot points the movie director Chi Keung Fung was juggling, it was always going to be hard to bring everything together smoothly, and I’m hardly the type that’s going to complain when a complex and convoluted mystery resolves itself with a series of action set pieces. But in the end it is a little disappointing just how wasted the parrot subplot feels. The payoff is fine, but you can’t help but wish that with such a wild premise it didn’t wind up getting buried under a million other ideas.
But when a movie has so many fun elements and treats its most ridiculous elements with such deadpan gravity that it starts to feel like a dare, it seems churlish to complain. A Witness From Out Of The Blue is very much in its own groove, but still manages to come as close as might still be possible to the free-floating mania of the likes of Movie Impact Limited or Magnum Films. And you know what? I’ll take it.