The third and final installment in the “Overheard” franchise boasts a timely, intriguing subject: the corruption and controversy surrounding the real-estate development of Hong Kong’s New Territories. With their skillful dialogue and direction, “Infernal Affairs” writers Felix Chong and Alan Mak keep individual scenes strikingly vital and engrossing throughout. But the venality and betrayal on display here become so predictably ubiquitous — and the characters so numerous, intertwined and underdeveloped — that the twists eventually lose their dramatic impact, and the film its forward momentum. A blockbuster at home, “Overheard 3” may remain a cult item outside Asia.
No familiarity with the two previous “Overheard” films is needed to appreciate the third: Aside from an emphasis on surveillance, the universality of greed and malfeasance, and the presence of star thesps Louis Koo, Sean Lau and Daniel Wu (playing completely different roles from film to film), nothing narratively links the three installments. With relatively few explosive action sequences and no shootouts — monitoring being the film’s favored activity and cars the weapons of choice — the plot here grows increasingly complicated, requiring close attention to follow its many-stranded misdirections, detours and surprises.
As the opening exposition makes clear, Hong Kong law gave the New Territories’ indigenous inhabitants and their male descendants plots of land on which to build modest homes. These lots, or “dings,” here become disputed units in multibillion-dollar development deals that put villagers, important NT clans and outside financiers at each other’s throats in constant cycles of complicity and treachery.
The film begins with familial betrayal as the powerful Luk clan, under the guidance of village leader Uncle To (Kenneth Tsang), decides to off a family member bent on selling to a rival real-estate developer. In the pre-credits sequence, as To celebrates his alliance with moneyman Wan (Huang Lei), fireworks exploding in the sky behind them, Jau (Koo) races through the night on a murderous collision course with the uncooperative relative.
After the credits, artfully displayed over a computer mock-up of future NT luxury compounds, the film apparently structures itself around Jau as he emerges from prison, having gained a million dollars and a prosthetic leg in exchange for his vehicular homicide. Seemingly happy to join the four Luk brothers with whom he grew up, Jau secretly conspires with fellow ex-con Joe (Wu) to enmesh the siblings in a web of surveillance in order to capture all their internecine secret dealings. In this, Jau is acting in concert with former g.f. Yu (Michelle Ye), Uncle To’s daughter, who is now embroiled with Wan in a sexual/financial partnership. But as the film progresses, Jau seems to lose focus, his fixation on Yu sabotaging his effectiveness as a web-spinner. And with their romantic relationship relegated to an offscreen backstory, Jau’s dysfunction feels largely internalized and inexplicably bogs down the film, weakening its throughline.
Meanwhile, the Luk brothers, shortchanged by recent corporate IPO offerings, plot to wrest control from their Uncle To. While three of the siblings look like thuggish variations on the Ritz Brothers, Keung (Sean Lau) — who is the only one with brains, and who ironically harbors a genuine liking for Jau and gratitude for his sacrifice — emerges as Jau’s worthy antagonist, and an alternate driving force for the film. But this “Infernal Affairs”-style mirror imaging keeps getting deflected and diverted into secondary plots and double-crosses within double-crosses, as none-too-bright villagers and equally dim Luk henchmen mix it up in choreographed disunity.
Young, friendly woman-of-the-people Moon (Zhou Xun), widow of the Jau-slain Luk and the film’s sole energetically positive presence, proves the sole exception. Her spirited rejection of Keung, who has long held a torch for her, and her attraction to Joe, who’s more of a nice-guy computer geek than a crook, brings a welcome change of tone to this increasingly one-note clusterfuck. Indeed, by the time the film concludes with a free-for-all demolition derby, the players have started to turn indistinguishable as they spiral into treachery and violence. What began as an orchestrated master scheme ends as a mindless, murderous tantrum.
Visually, the film remains a treat. Chong and Mak’s inventive direction pays off stylistically no matter what, enabled by Anthony Pun’s high-contrast lensing, Curran Pang’s creative cutting and Man Lim-chung’s subtly virulent production design.