Look both ways but kiss your arse goodbye anyway
dir: Pou Soi Cheang
There’s this thing about Hong Kong films: most of them aren’t good, and most of them are the same. The rare good ones, to people who don’t watch a lot of Hong Kong flicks, could be indistinguishable from the bad ones.
Actually, that’s probably not entirely true. The really bad ones usually have lots of annoying screaming, people eating snot and Stephen Chow pretending to laugh until food falls out of his mouth.
But good goddamn do they get it right when they get it right. The last of the contemporary HK directors that I considered worthy of following each and every project that came down the chute was Johnnie To, with his atmospheric and contemplative crime dramas. Now I have to look out for this chap, Soi Cheang, as well, because I haven’t seen something this good in a long while.
The problem is that it won’t be easy to translate the ineffable ways in which this very slight, very moody, and virtually silent flick gets everything so right into a worthwhile film review. Of course, it’s never stopped me before, so it’s not going to stop me now, is it?
There’s this crew of people, four of them, and their job is to carry out contracts on selected targets. Yes, they’re assassins, but their job is not only to kill people, but to make it all look entirely like an accident, happenstance, a random and unfortunate occurrence.
Everyone knows their job, and more so they know how to look at a particular environment meticulously in order to figure out a sometimes incredibly complicated way to take someone out with what’s available to them, or the innocuous stuff they can inject into the environment to have the cumulative affect of snuffing out some poor triad boss’s lights.
They are led by Kwok-Fai, or Brain, as his team call him (Louis Koo), who is a very uptight but effective leader. He clinically observes every location until he can feel comfortable that he’s taken every variable into account. And then, after exhaustive reconnaissance and theorising, and only then, do they put their complicated plan into action.
Being meticulous, and with their objective being not only the ending of the target’s life, but the overarching requirement to make the deaths look like accidents, it’s not anywhere near as easy as just finding the right place to pull a trigger. These deaths are intricate works of art.
A sensible, and moral, person, upon reading something like this might think I’m aestheticising what is, after all, murder. I’m not justifying what they do, nor do I need to. It is, after all, fiction. The moral quandaries aren’t really part of it, not because the killings themselves are justifiable in any moral sense, either.
What they do stem from, and what elevates this beautiful little flick above crime flicks (I would say it doesn’t even rally reside within the genre, anyway) into something more existential, is the root cause of Kwok-Fai’s malaise and his gainful employment.
We get a very early shot of a woman crashing through the windscreen of her car, her broken watch ticking to stillness as her body grows colder on the car’s bonnet. This was Kwok-Fai’s wife, we find out. We also find out that in a world where you create elaborate scenarios that look like ‘bad’ luck or happenstance, which result in someone’s death, then the random doesn’t look as random, and chaos seems to be coldly malevolent and purposeful.
Since Kwok-Fai can’t accept that his wife died in an actual accident, and that it must have been orchestrated in some way, with him being the actual target, then nothing that happens can have happened by accident. So when a member of his team dies during a job, and it looks like an accident, of course Kwok-Fai knows that someone is out to get him.
The way Louis Koo, who puts in a superbly understated performance in this flick, conveys virtually all of his character’s traits and horrendously uptight nature is solely through body language. Every time he observes a person or situation, every single time he’s in public, or bumps into someone, or even carries his fucking groceries is done in such a way that makes him look supremely ill at ease. He looks like a voyeur even when he’s not doing anything sly.
What we have, here, for my money, is a person so convinced that someone else is out to get them, who is so far gone with justifiable (in his opinion) paranoia, that he creates the reality that he fears most. After all, if you have the power over life and death, in such a way that only you would know that other people’s fates are in your hands, wouldn’t you fear that someone or something else, maybe even some nebulous guy in the sky or the Buddha or some g-string clad Krishna, holds your fate in their hands?
The line, immortalised by Nirvana, despite the fact that the line predated the band by decades, and probably predated Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, is that Just because you’re paranoid / Don’t mean they'r not after you.
But what if you’re so paranoid that it eventually compels someone to come after you? What if you’re so paranoid that you invest time, energy, money and your own survival into convincing yourself that someone is out to get you, so much so that you have to take them out first?
My, my, how cerebral, you must be thinking. The film is open to cerebral analysis, chin-stroking and other general wankery on my part, but it’s because it’s so well put together, in a tense, quiet, melancholy manner, that you can enjoy it first and foremost before analysing it afterwards. It is as meticulously crafted as one of the assassinations that would seem to be the set pieces of most importance in the flick, which would be deceptive.
I couldn’t help but chuckle at elements in the flick that reminded me, or at least called to mind something like the Final Destination movies, which are horror flicks centred entirely around Death Itself killing people in the most elaborate manner possible for no discernible reason apart from for an audience’s delectation. This is nothing like those flicks, but it did make me wonder how dangerous someone like Kwok-Fai would be in real life, in that if you pissed him off, as someone does unintentionally in the second half of the flick, he could figure out a way for you to die without anyone else being any the wiser, in a speedy and brutal fashion. All he needs are a few thumb tacks, a peanut and a difficult to undo bra strap, and you’ll be cursing your fate with your gurgling, dying breath in no time.
I loved it thoroughly, but then I’m partial to these quiet, observed, crafted kind of flicks. The elaborate Rube Goldbergian scenarios are just icing on top of an already seductive and enjoyable cake. A cake of murderousness, and icky paranoid tension, but a wonderful cake all the same. I loved the absolute heck out of Louis Koo’s performance, and have regained my profound admiration for the man.
Some of that admiration, surely, should also go to the other actors, and the director, and the wonderful, low-key score by some French guy, no doubt. There’s lots of admiration to go around, lots for everyone.
Let’s just leave it at this: Even though there might have been an element or two that might not have made complete sense (to me), virtually everyone involved with Accident, from beginning to end, gets everything right. And it shows, in what is one of the best, most crafted flicks that came out of anywhere in 2009.
Just watch out for what you can’t possibly predict, because, you know, someone probably is out to get you, after all.
9 times I doubt an eclipse has ever saved anyone’s life, whether they were tied to a stake or walking calmly across the street in downtown Hong Kong out of 10.
“There are no accidents.” - Accident