Gut-wrenching violence, classical music, daddy issues and Lolita complexes are grist for director Roy Chow Hin Yeung’s grisly mill in “Nightfall,” a Hong Kong thriller with a strong noirish flavor that stops short of lurid, thanks to the seasoned cast’s solid perfs. Chow’s slick if unremarkable helming shows visible improvement from his out-of-left-field debut, “Murderer,” though his repeat collaborator, scribe Christine To Chi-long, has swung from that film’s gag-worthy implausibility to its opposite extreme, belaboring a plot that’s perfectly tenable yet predictable every step of the way. Pic should slot easily into Asian genre fests and ancillary.
Echoes of Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” linger in “Nightfall,” opening with a staggeringly vicious prison fight in which inmate Eugene Wong (Nick Cheung) puts up a brave struggle but is outnumbered and mercilessly beaten. Later, he is released after serving a 20-year sentence, and immediately takes up spying on Zoe Tsui (actress-model Janice Man), a piano student whose father, Han (Michael Wong), is a renowned opera singer.
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Renting a shack directly across from the Tsuis’ isolated country mansion, Eugene uses bugging devices to discover that Han is a volatile, abusive father. When Han is found murdered in a gruesome manner, inspector George Lam (Simon Yam) identifies Eugene as the prime suspect.
The pic’s Chinese title, “Big Hunt Down,” coupled with the gripping prologue, dangles expectations of the kind of propulsive, hard-boiled actioner in the darkly stylized mold of Dante Lam or Soi Cheang, or a Hong Kong rendition of the “Bourne” series. “Nightfall” turns out to be neither. The first chase scene doesn’t even happen until the 40-minute mark; an impressively maniacal mano-and-mano inside a cable car occurs 70 minutes into the film.
Essentially a drama-driven whodunit, the pic draws interesting parallels between George’s and Eugene’s respective pasts and their astute yet driven personalities, deepening the detective’s increasingly ambivalent role as the ex-con’s hunter and defender. However, the exposition lags, overstaying its welcome with a cumbersome crime-scene re-enactment accompanied by a long spiel that dryly clarifies every point.
Cheung’s role capitalizes on the thesp’s popular, paradoxical screen image as a psycho with heart, most memorably in “The Beast Stalker.” The fact that Eugene has a speech impediment and is a lone wolf and peeping Tom reps a formidable challenge for Cheung. Deprived of dialogue and the chance to interact with most of the other thesps, he nonetheless brings emotional heft to his bursts of violence.
Yam provides a subtly intense dramatic anchor as the story’s moral center. His scenes with Cheung are little more than staring contests, but they simmer with tension, while George’s partnership with junior detective Ying (singer Kay Tse) generates some playful and romantic vibes that could have been further developed to enrich the main story.
In brief flashbacks as the 19-year-old Eugene, Shawn Dou (“Under the Hawthorn Tree”) manages to channel the 40-year-old protag’s angst-filled expressions and body language despite the lack of physical resemblance. With her porcelain doll features and fragile, frightened look, Man fits her role and contributes to the disturbing prurience of Zoe’s exchanges with her father; however, the actress doesn’t have enough screen presence to carry the film as its chief catalyst and female protag.
Ardy Lam’s fluid lensing delivers crisp images of pristine natural scenery (something of a rarity for Hong Kong-set pics) and glittering neon-lit panoramas of the city by night; however, a consistent visual tone is absent, due to the jarring alternation between heavily saturated and garishly desaturated color textures in interior scenes. Sound is exceptionally clean and resonant, while composer Shigeru Umebayashi (“Trishna,” “In the Mood for Love,”) seamlessly shifts among edgy cello music, plaintive piano notes and sweeping orchestral melodies, repping the pic’s biggest treat.