The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place between July 14 and July 30. For more information, click here.
First, a warning in advance: eventually, this will be a review of the film Vital Signs. But before that it must also, briefly, double as a tribute to Louis Koo, as befits his status as the recipient of this years’ Extraordinary Star Asia Award, the highest honor the festival bestows.
.I’m embarrassed to admit that I was a little late on the Louis Koo train. Despite a minor role in 1994’s excellent Organized Crime And Triad Bureau, Koos’ film career didn’t really pick up until the end of the millennium, at which point, spurred by the perceived decline in genre film quality post-1997 handover, my high school bred obsession with Hong Kong action cinema had cooled significantly..
(With hindsight, this was a silly line of thinking; there are always ebbs and flows in any genre in any part of the world at any given time, and there are always gems to be found no matter what. But in my defense… look, Edison Chen and Sam Lee might have distinguished themselves by now, but try watching Gen-Y Cops in 2000 and tell me you’d have stuck around)
At any rate, it was only through belated exposure to his works with Johnnie To that I came to appreciate his talent and the sort of gravity he was just naturally able to exude. He quickly became a welcome presence, a known quantity that could lift the tide of even the weakest script.
With a filmography listing in the low hundreds, it’s a task to get the full picture of his range and his gifts, especially when one’s viewing tendencies trend towards genre. And he is, it goes without saying, a dab hand at all that. But he’s also capable of so much more. So it was above all else a distinct pleasure to see him as this films’ Ma, a veteran paramedic who feels his life coming to a turning point, using his gifts to pursue decidedly more grounded ends.
There are many virtues to Vital Signs, many elements that make it a quality piece of drama. But it cannot be underestimated just how much the mere presence of Louis Koo brings to the table.
Key word, that
It is exceedingly easy to imagine the version of this story that acts as a vehicle for a young up-and-comer, a time tested tale of a young, ambitious worker who learns to become an entire person through the love and support of various mentors and lovers. It’s a familiar formula, and one that works a treat when all the pieces are infused with a sense of emotional commitment; as much as we as an audience tend to decry unoriginality, formulas become formulas for a reason; as long as the creators are willing to commit to the cliches, the sense of satisfaction can be as real as anything.
So in a sense, one of the most interesting things that Vital Signs does, is shift the focus slightly, to where the “rookie” (Wong Wai, as played by Neo Yau) takes second chair, finding in Ma a potential father figure, but one that proves more prickly than anticipated.
Perhaps it was just a clever variation, or perhaps it was due to the sheer gravity of Louis Koo’s very presence, but that little switch really is all it takes to make the whole thing feel fresh. And arguably, if that were all the filmmakers did, it might very well be enough all its own. But as it turns out, the ambition doesn’t just stop at that altered perspective; instead, it proves to be just one of the ways in which Vital Signs deviates from the formula; whenever the movie has a choice between the familiar beat and something based more in character dynamics, they go character every time, and it’s that level of casual innovation that lifts this above it’s more typical brethren.
Despite the billing in the festival writeup as “the Dirty Harry of Hong Kong paramedics”, Koo’s Ma cuts a decidedly less imposing figure. While in the broad strokes comparisons could be made; he has a reluctance to “play politics” that has kept him in the trenches and a tendency to flout the rules in an emergency, the devil is in the details. Whereas Dirty Harry seems to evince nothing but contempt for the procedures and protocols that keep him from his perceived task of meting out justice (as opposed to serving the public), Ma resists the glad handing because his entire drive is to be on the street, saving lives.
Or at least, that’s what most of the people around him seem to believe; it’s a virtue of Koo’s layered performance that we can never quite be sure what he’s thinking in terms of his drives and his motivations. Ma keeps his cards close to his chest, but projects such a sense of dutiful stoicism in all his dealings that it gets hard for even the people closest to him to recognize the depth of his struggles.
Because his problems are definitely more complex than a lack of emotional transparency: recently widowed and preparing to move himself and his daughter to Canada (somewhat at the behest of his concerned in-laws), Ma is dealing with severe back pain that is hindering his ability to do his job, as well as the very real possibility that his certifications won’t transfer to the Great North. He’s at looser ends than anyone realizes, or than he can even admit to himself, and the biggest victim might be Ma’s own daughter, who’s starting to have doubts that he even loves her anymore.
It’s all the stuff of high melodrama, but gratifyingly reluctant to tug on the heartstrings in the old, rote ways. It comes by its moments of emotional catharsis organically, and of course that’s due to some sharp writing and some excellent performances.
Koo goes without saying of course, but Yau also shines, integrating the various rookie archetypes (calculating, ambitious up-and-comer, by-the-book idealist, deferential underling) with a seemingly contradictory approach to his personal life as shown in his halting potential romance with Ma’s cousin-in-law Miffy (Angela Yuen, a foul mouthed delight), and somehow making it all seem of a complex, humanist piece.
The underlying themes of immigration and emigration lend an interesting texture to the proceedings; many of the characters Wai and Ma treat are immigrant workers hurt in onsite accidents, which complicate efforts to get them proper care. It’s not didactic, but it is highly visible, and serves to add to the
And while the drama is favored over the medical emergency set pieces so that there are fewer than I expected going in, director Vincci Cheuk (who also wrote the script) makes them count, opting for a riveting methodical approach that favors character over spectacle so that when we finally go big with the final sequence, an all hands on deck bus crash, the sense of urgency feels earned.
I will admit that I didn’t get what I was expecting when I sat down to watch Vital Signs; the whole ‘Dirty Harry in an ambulance’ line, while undeniably catchy, kind of does it a disservice. This isn’t the adrenaline rush I went in expecting. Instead it was something smarter, more meaningful, and more rewarding. The Star Asia Award is one tribute to Louis Koo. This movie is another entirely.