Helmer Soi Cheang takes a confident step onto the international stage with this hitman caper.

After a decade as one of Hong Kong’s least-known maverick helmers, Soi Cheang takes a confident step onto the international stage with hitman puzzle-caper “Accident.” Clearly benefiting from the creative discipline of working with Johnnie To’s Milkyway team, Cheang has ironed out his usual rough edges and scripting weaknesses without losing his natural smarts as a genre director. Result, tagged to To’s name as producer, looks set for robust fest play, warm theatrical in friendly territories, long life on ancillary and remake possibilities.

With its high concept of a bunch of assassins who disguise their kills as accidents, the pic is the ultimate demonstration of To’s favorite mantra for his own films: “Expect the unexpected.” “Accident” takes that idea one step further by making the killers themselves victims of accidental (or maybe not) forces.

With its twisting plot and multiple betrayals (perceived or otherwise), plus regular To actors and technicians, the movie has the strong imprint of a Milkyway production, even though it’s a totally gun-free zone. There are few traces of Cheang’s wild early works (“Diamond Hill,” “Horror Hotline…Big Head Monster”) or his recent over-the-top actioners (“Dog Bite Dog,” “Shamo”), but the pic does have its own signature in its noirish, jazzy interludes and the main character’s growing paranoia.

Dubbing himself an “accident choreographer,” the coolly methodical Ho Kwok-fai, aka “Brain” (Louis Koo), leads a small team (Feng Tsui-fan, Lam Suet, Michelle Ye) who specialize in planned “accidents” for money. Post-titles setpiece in a crowded Hong Kong street cleverly introduces the assassins and their methods with a mixture of suspense and black comedy, as one thing triggers another apparently by chance.

Post-op, however, it’s clear there are tensions within the group (Brain even bugs his own HQ) that feed into the subsequent story. Their next client, Wong (Chan Mong-wah), who wants his father killed, challenges them to come up with an elaborate scenario that, after several aborted attempts, almost goes wrong.

One of the team is killed, and Brain just escapes death himself. Convinced it was an “accident” planned by another party, Brain follows Wong to a meeting with a businessman, Fong (Taiwan’s Richie Jen), and becomes increasingly suspicious that not only Fong but even his own teammates are plotting against him.

There’s more than a touch of classic Brian De Palma in the corkscrew plot and setpieces, even though Cheang & Co. don’t try to emulate De Palma’s single-take trademark. And as Brain’s brain becomes progressively screwier, doubts emerge about whether what one is seeing is the truth or an interpretation of it.

Unlike many Milkyway productions, the pic doesn’t temporarily run out of steam at the 70-minute mark. Apart from an off-kilter coda following the clever finale, the script runs smoothly from start to finish, in a single arc.

As the whiz kid whose own tables are turned against him, Hong Kong star Koo gives a cold, expressionless perf that Cheang supplements emotionally via production design and supporting characters. Among the other cast, Feng gets the meatiest part as the sickly, forgetful “Uncle”; co-star Jen, smooth as silk, has little more than an extended cameo.

Tech package is strong, with a moody, nocturnal-bluesy score by Frenchman Xavier Jamaux that’s a neat fit with Fung Yuen-man’s voyeur-like widescreen lensing.

Accident

Hong Kong

Production

A Media Asia Films presentation of a Milkyway Image production. (International sales: Media Asia, Hong Kong.) Produced by Johnnie To. Executive producer, John Chong. Directed by Soi Cheang. Screenplay, Szeto Kam-yuen, Nicholl Tang,

Crew

Milkyway Creative Team. Camera (color, widescreen), Fung Yuen-man; editor, David Richardson; music, Xavier Jamaux; production designers/costume designers, Silver Cheung, Stanley Cheung; sound (Dolby Digital), Leung Chung-wai, Martin Chapell; action choreographer, Jack Wong. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2009. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Vanguard.) Running time: 85 MIN. (Cantonese, Mandarin dialogue)

With

Louis Koo, Richie Jen, Feng Tsui-fan, Michelle Ye, Lam Suet, Han Yuqin, Monica Mok, Chan Mong-wah.

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