Many of the ingredients are in place but the blood refuses to chill when watching “Double Vision,” a Taiwanese attempt at the Japanese-patented “psycho-horror” genre that suffers from a blurred script and a serious lack of onscreen chemistry between its actors. Until it jumps the rails in the final reels, this is a workmanlike, sometimes effective serial killer crime drama with limited theatrical potential in East Asia and almost none in Western markets.
Film is the second this year from Hong Kong-based Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, following Feng Xiaogang’s very likable, China-set comedy “Big Shot’s Funeral,” which preemed internationally at the Berlin festival. Next up from CPFPA will be H.K. director Cory Yuen’s femme actioner “So Close” this summer.
“Double Vision” is an intriguing oddity. It is the first all-out commercial venture by Chen Kuo-fu, a former critic who’s made four rather arty movies, the best of which is “The Personals,” one of the finest Taiwanese pics of the ’90s. As well as being CPFPA’s Taiwan rep, Chen also exec produced “Double Vision” through his own Taipei-based Nan Fang Film Prods. Several of the key behind-camera personnel are, however, from Hong Kong (d.p. Arthur Wong, and the whole art direction team), and post-production was done in Melbourne, Australia, where locations also doubled for the U.S.
Any doubts that Chen wouldn’t come up with the commercial, widescreen goods are dispelled straightaway by the rapidly paced opening. After a grisly Caesarian birth whose significance is explained only in pic’s coda, we meet a group of tough, no-nonsense Taipei cops beating a confession out of a suspect. Their leader is detective Li Feng-po (Leon Dai). Also in the building, but busted down to foreign affairs officer after blowing the whistle on his buddies, is inspector Huang Huo-tu (H.K. thesp Tony Leung Kar-fai).
Wong’s classy, mobile camerawork keeps things looking good as the first murder is discovered — the chairman of a corrupt chemical company is mysteriously found dead by drowning in his 17th floor office.
Next to die under strange circumstances is a politician’s mistress (Chiang Hui-hui), who is barbecued in her apartment; and then an American cleric (Geo Gerstein) is found eviscerated and re-stitched in his own church with a Taoist symbol tattooed on his stomach.
Lacking serial killer expertise and denying political pressure, the Taiwan authorities call in an expert from the FBI, Kevin Richter (David Morse). Richter is teamed up with Huang, and the pair follows a trail that leads from mind-bending fungus through a weird Taoist sect run by ex-businessmen to a finale in which Huang’s own inner demons are exposed and turned against him.
Pic starts to develop problems with the appearance of Richter, a character so obviously stitched into the movie for foreign marketing purposes that the seams still show. After some initial Westerner-in-Taiwan schtick and cross-cultural aggro, Richter’s main purpose in the script is to discover crucial evidence that moves the plot along to its next stage. Best thing that can be said for Morse’s perf as the burnt-out-looking specialist is that it doesn’t dominate the movie, especially in the actor’s low-key playing.
Leung largely phones in his performance as the cop with marital and career problems, plus a horrific past incident involving his young daughter (Huang Wei-han). Though in a much smaller part, Dai is a much more vivid screen presence as the hard-nosed cop on the case who — in one of the movie’s best scenes — quietly wonders whether the case they’re on is actually solvable.
Not according to the script as presented here, which is often garbled, frequently makes no logical sense and spins off into a Chinese ghost movie in the labored final reels. That’s nothing new for a slice of pure genre cinema, but Chen’s overall direction, though always photogenic, lacks the necessary oomph and sustained atmosphere to bring off the flights of fancy.
Rene Liu, so good in “The Personals,” is wasted in a token role as Huang’s wife, whom he is about to divorce. Tsai Ming-liang regular Yang Kwei-mei has some straight-faced fun with the part of a coroner but, like Liu, she’s pure decoration on the tree. Best known for his roles in Ang Lee’s movies, veteran Sihung Lung, who died recently, guests reliably as a Taoist expert.