A futuristic thriller that taps into contemporary fears about the rapid rise of surveillance technology, “Camera” sets up an intriguing scenario but hasn’t the scripting depth and stamina to make the most of its ideas. Centered on a troubled young surveillance expert in Hong Kong whose blind eye is replaced by a digital camera, the pic reps an interesting first foray into drama by Singaporean documaker James Leong. Following its world preem at PiFan, “Camera” should enjoy a respectable fest run ahead of a tough assignment in the commercial arena. Release details for Singapore and Hong Kong are pending.

The film is set in a future-noir Hong Kong carved into pockets of extreme affluence and districts of despair by shady property developers and corrupt politicians. Operating on both sides of the divide is Ming (Sean Li), an electronics expert whose business is recording private misdeeds of the rich and powerful. Working for anonymous clients, Ming receives assignments from an unnamed middleman (Cheng Shu-fung) running things from a food stall in a grimy back alley.

A loner who compulsively files everything he records, Ming suffers from headaches and flashbacks to a father-related childhood trauma that left him sightless in one eye. Intrigue ramps up when Ming meets old Dr. Chan (Poon Cheuk-ming), an associate of his late father. Now able to perform surgery the men could only theorize about 20 years ago, Chan replaces Ming’s bad eye with a perfect electronic replica that functions as a camera. In a neat touch, the device is linked to a micro-mini hard drive concealed in a denture.

Shifting into more traditional detective-movie territory, Ming is hired to follow Claire (Venus Wong), the attractive and troubled daughter of Chairman Tam (Poon Yuen-leung), ruthless boss of a corporation with tentacles in the security and surveillance industries. Unsurprisingly, Ming becomes obsessed with Claire, and risky romance ensues after he steps out of the shadows to help her.

Having set up engaging narrative threads and stimulating themes about invasion of privacy, the screenplay (by Leong and Ben Slater) largely fails to press home the advantage. The basic plotting loses complexity and credibility as Ming gets closer to Claire and uncovers details from her past that shed light on his own murky memories. Also cooling down rather than heating up is the bigger picture of Hong Kong at this unspecified point in the future. It’s surprising that, apart from scattered news reports referring to redevelopment of the “Old City,” no mention is made of how this vision of Hong Kong evolved in relation to the 50-year “one country, two systems” transitional period currently under way. While the film never becomes dull, its second half produces less sizzle than the first.

Maintaining a piercing stare and barely moving a facial muscle until deep into the proceedings, Li is compelling as the emotionally frozen observer of other people’s lives. Wong is fine as the distressed object of Ming’s curiosity and affection. Other performances are up to the mark.

The low-budget pic is significantly enhanced by high-quality components. Basil Mironer’s moody widescreen photography combines nicely with retro-futurist production design and costuming to create an ambience of fear and quiet despair; nowhere is this better expressed than in a brief and beautifully composed sequence in a bar where couples of all ages slow-dance to a melancholy song from a bygone era. All other technical contributions are first-rate.

Film Review: ‘Camera’

Reviewed at Puchon Intl. Fantastic Film Festival (Puchon Choice), July 19, 2014. Running time: <strong>95 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Singapore-Hong Kong) A Golden Village (in Singapore) release of a Fortissimo Films presentation of a Lianain Films production in association with Fortissimo Films, Singapore Film Commission, Network of Asian Fantastic Films, Golden Horse Project Promotion, Tokyo Project Gathering. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Hong Kong.) Produced by Lynn Lee, Jacqueline Liu. Executive producers, James Leong, Lynn Lee, Po Chih-leong, Michael Werner, Jim McDonnell.
  • Crew: Directed by James Leong. Screenplay, Leong, Ben Slater. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Basil Mironer; editor, Leong; music, Shao Yanpeng; music supervisor, Leong; production designer, James Page; costume designer, Wendy Chan; sound (stereo), MBS Studios; visual effects supervisors, Gareth Repton, Marc Hutchens; visual effects, Luxa Studios; line producers, Jacqueline Liu, Sock Leng-ling; associate producer, Cecilia Then; assistant director, Janice Ho; casting, Then.
  • With: Sean Li, Venus Wong, Poon Yuen-leung, Poon Cheuk-ming, Cheng Shu-fung, Harvey Sit. (Cantonese dialogue)