In retrospect, perhaps there were only two ways that Hong Kong action pioneer Dante Lam’s “Operation Mekong,” based on the story of the 2011 “Mekong Massacre,” could have gone. Either the gravity of the real-life subject matter would see Lam suppress his trademark exuberance, last seen slightly defanged in cycling drama “To The Fore,” or he’d take vast liberties with the truth and deliver a slam-bam manhunt thriller.
To the evident delight of the Chinese audience, who have made “Mekong” the No. 1 film in the region for the last two weekends running, Lam takes the latter route. But if it makes for a breathlessly assaultive, vastly entertaining couple of hours, it can be discomfiting whenever there’s a brief pause in the pelting gunfire and we glimpse the contours of the actual, flesh-and-blood tragedy. How straightforward your enjoyment of the film will be largely depends on your ability to read “based on” as “very loosely inspired by” and to immediately forget that some of these archetypes and stock genre characters have real-life (and real-death) counterparts.
The actual incident caused a major outcry regionally, but is not so well-known further abroad, partially due to the labyrinthine complexities and internecine politicking it involved. Lam, never the subtlest of filmmakers, finds a kind of maximalist, kitchen-sink solution to the problem this complexity represents: for the first half-hour or so he simply throws everything up on screen, with rapid-fire cutting between an extraordinary number of scenes and locales introducing a blizzard of characters, many of whom serve no function save to be the next link in the chain en route to the Big Bad. The video-game-level plotting is reinforced by the film’s politics, which are as simplistic as its story is convoluted: With unembarrassed jingoism, Lam’s decorates his Chinese characters with every virtue of innocence, bravery, fraternity, self-sacrifice, and nobility, while outside China’s borders all is corruption, cowardliness, depravity, and ineptitude. Its thrumming action beat means the film feels highly exportable, but it might have to skip a few nearby Southeast Asian nations whose denizens are not represented in the most flattering light.
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The story takes place mostly in the so-called “Golden Triangle,” a seemingly placid stretch of the Mekong River that forms a triple frontier between Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. The area is notorious for piracy, banditry, and a cutthroat drug trade, against which the Thai government claims to have struck a blow when they proudly announce the seizure of 900,000 meth pills off a Chinese boat in a raid that left 13 Chinese fishermen dead. But dogged narcotics officer Captain Gao Gang (Zhang Hanyu) soon finds evidence that disputes that version of events. His inquiries lead him, with the help of local undercover operative Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng), to believe that the dead were essentially murdered by ruthless drug kingpin Naw Kham (played with crazy-eyed hatefulness by Pawarith Monkolpisit). And so Gao Gang and his elite task force (all codenamed after Greek gods, because why not?) embark on several increasingly risky missions to bring Naw Kham down and “get justice for our fishermen!” — dialogue has never been Lam’s strongest suit.
However, action most certainly is, and by this point we’re already several dizzying shootouts and set pieces in. But unlike the best films of Lam contemporary Johnnie To, for example, in its bid for frenzied big-budget excitement, “Operation Mekong” quickly waves goodbye to any sense of verisimilitude. Instead, it morphs, cut by frenetic cut, into a flashy buddy-cop action movie, only differing from the equivalent Michael Bay joint in the quality and length of the action scenes (Lam’s are better and much, much longer). This exaggerated approach poses its own believability problems, as ever, like characters inexplicably deciding to chat on the upper floor of an unfinished skyscraper purely to give DP Yuen Man Fung’s jittery camera a cool fly-by shot.
But more troubling are those dramatic embellishments that touch on real issues: the shots of maimed peasants who had their limbs hacked off for refusing to work the drug harvest; the casual invention of Naw Kham’s child soldier army. There are few more viscerally upsetting images than a pair of drugged-up children sitting in a circle of their giggling hooting peers playing Russian Roulette, but that’s just something Lam tosses in as background color. Moments like that are sensationalist in the worst way, and sit ill at ease alongside the exhilarating excesses of the brilliantly staged shopping mall showdown, or the cartoonish fun of the camera plunging us head-first into a bazooka just as it’s about to fire.
“Operation Mekong” absolutely proves Lam’s action and tension bona fides in a bigger-budget register than his previous, more psychologically involved cop thrillers “Beast Stalker” and “Stool Pigeon,” but it’s harder to justify the film’s highly selective retelling of recent history. Real life is grubby, unjust, and uncertain, and it seldom divides neatly into good-and-bad: in short, it doesn’t happen like a popcorn action flick. As the martial (again Michael Bay-style) score careens from one climax to the next, borrowing unearned seriousness from its rushing military percussion and grandiose swells, Lam’s movie hurtles by in an enjoyably giddy, propulsive rush right until the final titles, which dedicate the film to the dead fishermen and detail the fate of the real Naw Kham. They remind us of the pesky kernel of fact on which it’s all based, and there’s nothing that taints two hours of skillful, high-octane escapism like a reminder of the real-world people for whom escape was not an option.