Oh great, another movie about dead girls and the grizzled cop/greenhorn cop duo tracking their killer. At least “Limbo,” from Soi Cheang (the “Monkey King” franchise) looks slick — often literally, with photogenic rain showers making its trashed Hong Kong slum locations as reflective as silver. The monochrome gloss smoothes over the joints between chunks of narrative and stock characters that seem lifted wholesale from other cop thrillers, though the genre’s fondness for torturing women to motivate men remains sadly intact. Who are we kidding: These movies are never about the dead girls.
In a needlessly confusing flash-forward, we’re in a garbage-strewn alleyway, nestled beneath a stretch of elevated train line lit by sizzling neon signage, the lights of the city’s more salubrious skyscraper districts far in the distance. A beat-up guy tries to catch his breath; another is on his knees, sobbing; and a half-naked girl, bound at the wrists, whimpers in a box. It is raining.
Already here, DP Cheng Siu Keung’s dazzling black-and-white, hi-def photography hints it will be the movie’s MVP, delivering a classic urban noir aesthetic updated to the 4k digital age. Anamorphic widescreen cityscapes buckle at the edges to cram in more detail; sometimes the fish-eye effect gives a first-person-shooter vibe to a moving shot, and when the camera is still, Mak Kwok Keung’s exhaustingly maximalist production design looks like a hidden object videogame. Appropriate, given one might spend quite some time hunting through the clutter for a point.
The two men are Will Ren (Mason Lee), the well-dressed newbie who’s been installed in a senior position despite little practical experience, and Cham Lau (Lam Ka Tung), the rumpled long-timer whose gruff approach belies his keen detective instincts. They’ve been partnered to lead the investigation into the killing of a young woman whose left hand was found severed from her body. Cham has just found another left hand, and when a left-hand-less third body shows up, they know it’s a serial killer case. The only thing the victims have in common is drug abuse, otherwise they were “social outcasts, nobody cared about them,” says Will, which is cool because that way we don’t have to care about them either. Au Kin Yee’s screenplay certainly doesn’t.
There’s a complicating factor, though. Cham’s wife has been on life support since a car accident caused by young addict Wang To (Liu Cya), and when Cham spots To, who’s just been released, the red mist descends and he pursues and practically kills her. To, already wracked with guilt, begs his forgiveness –— it’s explicitly his forgiveness she must earn — and offers to turn informer as recompense. Cham slaps her around a bit more, and sells her out to the gang she’s just betrayed, but eventually realizes she might be useful in the hunt for the killer.
Initially, “Limbo” is quite some Fincherian fun, cycling through tropes we’ve seen before (like the well-known penchant in the serial killing community for decorating one’s lair with discarded store mannequins) but doing so with panache. And the action scenes are well mounted, symphonically choreographed to make the most of Cheng’s camerawork and the glowering ruined Hong Kong backstreets where they play out. But at some point the creeping unease at just how much of the film’s violence is visited on the slight, pitiful Wang To flares into all-out discomfort.
Once Will also turns on her, having suffered the potentially career-ending loss of his gun, it becomes clear that the continued assaults on Wang To are no longer about upping the stakes, but a deliberately exploitative narrative choice. Every “rescue” is delayed until after some guy — often one of the ostensible “good guys” — has had time to deal her another beating. Or drag her, face down, across another filthy alley floor. Or fling her against a wall. Or toss her out of an upper-story window. Or subject her to a brutal rape.
It’s almost a relief when at the end, Will, whose worst pain until then has been wisdom-tooth trouble and gun-loss embarrassment, finally gets a rain-soaked beat-down of his own. But even then, the film’s coda refocuses attention back onto his plight, as if by this stage anyone gives a discarded mannequin arm if he ever finds his stupid gun again. The movie’s assumption that we’re as invested in this callow young man’s future on the force as we are in the life or death of the lead female, is an odd one. “Why do you treat me like this?” wails Wang To, after her gazillionth humiliation. Sister, there is no good reason.