Ace action-drama helmer Ringo Lam goes genre-bending with “Victim,” a mixture of psychodrama, caper movie, mystery, thriller and ghost pic that doesn’t hit all its targets but is an exhilarating enough ride for buffs most of the way. At its best, movie has the performance intensity of Lam’s 1997 “Full Alert,” drawing some remarkable playing from its cast; in its weaker moments, the seams start to show between the components. Pic performed disappointingly last fall on home turf, despite drawing appreciative notices from crix; Western business looks mostly limited to ancillary and specialized situations.
In a gritty, quietly charged opening that’s pure Lam, computer designer Ma Man-shun (Lau Ching-wan) is seemingly kidnapped. His g.f., Amy Fu (TV thesp Amy Kwok), tells police that Ma had been unemployed for some time and had debts, but he was basically a good man.
Following a tip-off, the police, led by detective Pit (Tony Leung Kar-fai), find Ma hanging by his feet in a deserted old hotel; the building is reputedly haunted, following the suicide 30 years earlier of its owner who had murdered his unfaithful wife.
Ma subsequently becomes moody and violent, and a cat-and-mouse game evolves between him, his g.f. and Pit. The cop suspects Ma may be faking ghostly possession and madness as a smoke-screen for some larger crime being plotted.
Thanks to a carefully calibrated perf by Lau, usually cast in good-guy roles, the viewer is given three options for Ma’s behavior (mad, sane, possessed) without any clear answers until the pic’s latter stages. Well-constructed script is at its best when on psychodrama territory, with Pit increasingly agitated over whether Ma is acting or not, and Ma’s g.f. caught up in the elaborate waltz between the two men.
In a tauter and more focused performance than usual, Leung is excellent as the cop; most memorable of all, however, is Kwok, who turns a potentially cliche girlfriend role into one of character and substance, more than holding her own against Lau and Leung.
Luckily, the ghost stuff (pic’s weakest element) doesn’t dominate, and the movie is replete with Lam trademarks — from the terrific opening two reels of Ma’s kidnap and discovery, through small details of the cops’ characters and the routines of police life, to gritty set pieces (a nocturnal car chase; a finale at the H.K. mint).
Throughout, Aussie d.p. Ross Clarkson’s lensing, plus the use of direct sound recording, complete with background noise, adds a rough, realistic edge to the proceedings that’s typical of the director. Andy Chan’s editing is tight, but with no sense of rush.
Though Hong Kong has already started to move on since the movie’s production, Ma’s character does encapsulate a recent moment in the territory’s history when people felt angry and betrayed by their market economy and temporarily lost faith. Overall, pic isn’t as dark and tenebrous as Lam’s “Full Alert” but spiritually it’s surprisingly bleak.
In a first for Hong Kong, 50% of the release prints contained a fleeting extra shot in the final scene that clarified the question of whether or not Ma was possessed by a ghost; in the other 50% (which reflected the original script) , that particular question was left unanswered. Audiences were given no advance info on which version was showing at which theaters.