One of the legendary names of the Hong Kong film industry is Tsui Hark (pronounced 'Choy Hok'), who has had a hand, either as director or producer, in over fifty films in the last twenty-two years. This Vietnam-born director/producer has often been labeled as the 'Steven Spielberg of Asian cinema', a man who has had a profound effect on the look of Hong Kong action and fantasy cinema since the release of his first feature film, "Butterfly Murders", in 1979. Mixing his heritage with his film education in the United States, he brought a unique vision to Asian audiences-- unfortunately, his early exploitation films were not well received by moviegoers, who found his atmospheric, moody, and gory offerings distasteful, which relegated them to cult status.
It was not until 1983 that he had his big break and first international hit, "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain". A combination of Chinese mysticism, martial arts choreography, and state-of-the-art special effects, "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain" was an ambitious film that boasted production values that were foreign to the Hong Kong industry. This fantasy epic was a true meeting of East and West, with the top martial arts choreographers working alongside some of the best special effects wizards from the United States.
However, after a falling-out with Golden Harvest, Tsui decided to start his own production company called Film Workshop. In addition to serving as his own creative outlet, he wanted Film Workshop to nurture the up-and-coming film directors of Hong Kong, which he did, shepherding some of the more prominent names of the Hong Kong New Wave. One of the more renowned alumni was director John Woo, whose breakthrough hit "A Better Tomorrow" saw the light of day with Tsui serving as producer. For the latter half of the Eighties and well into the Nineties, Tsui continued to exert his influence on Hong Kong cinema, lending his trademark style into the numerous 'Hong Kong New Wave' films he produced, including John Woo's "The Killer" and Ching Siu-tung's "A Chinese Ghost Story". On the directing side, he also kept busy, helming films such as the "Once Upon a Time in China" franchise, "The Big Heat", and "Peking Opera Blues".
In 1997, following in the footsteps of his protege John Woo, Tsui came Stateside to bring his brand of action cinema to Western audiences. "Double Team", a Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman vehicle, was his first foray into American filmmaking. Tsui was so happy with the end result that he wanted to have his name taken off the credits. True, it was a noisy, nonsensical, and cringe-worthy comic book story that substituted posturing and furrowed brows in the place of real emotions, though it was made tolerable thanks to Tsui's intense visual style. In the aftermath of such a dubious debut in Hollywood, surely he would redeem himself on his subsequent efforts. Unfortunately, his follow-up, "Knock Off", starring Van Damme again, fared worse, assailed by critics and taking in even less at the box office.
Disappointed by his experience working in Hollywood, and the layers of bureaucracy he had to contend with as a director, Tsui returned to Hong Kong last year to make "Time and Tide (Seunlau Ngaklau)", which will platform towards a nationwide North American release during the month of May. His first directorial effort in the aftermath of his Hollywood ordeal, this spiffy actioner marks a return for Tsui to the free-wheeling, fast-paced, and energetic environment of Hong Kong filmmaking. And though "Time and Tide" may not count among Tsui's best (such as "Peking Opera Blues"), it hints at some great expectations for the future.
The story contrasts two men, whose fates become intertwined after a chance meeting in a shop. The first is the 21-year old Tyler (current Hong Kong heartthrob Nicholas Tse of "Gen-X Cops"), who is waiting for his life to begin, while the other is Jack (Taiwanese rock star Wu Bai), who is trying to leave a former one behind. Both men have a child about to be born, which serves as a powerful motivator for them to change their ways. After impregnating a lesbian cop named Josephine (Cathy Tsui), Tyler gives up bartending to join an unlicensed bodyguard company run by a huckster named Uncle Ji (Anthony Wong of "Black Mask"), passing on the extra cash to Josephine, who refuses to have anything to do with him. In the case of Jack, his wife Ah Hui (pop singer Candy Lo), the estranged daughter of a rich and powerful triad boss named Hong, is about to give birth to their son.
To further complicate matters, Jack is a former mercenary from South America, and his former boss has arrived in Hong Kong to coerce him into assassinating his father-in-law, using his wife and unborn child as leverage. Determined to protect his newfound family, Jack turns the tables by assassinating his ex-boss and stealing $10 million of his money. This bold act then sets his former colleagues on his trail, led by the cold-blooded Miguel (Couto Remotigue, Jr.), leading to a bullet- and blood-soaked conflict in which Tyler finds himself a reluctant participant.
If you are wondering what action sequences Joel Silver ("The Matrix") or Jerry Bruckheimer ("Gone in 60 Seconds") will be pilfering for their productions next year, "Time and Tide" would be a pretty good place to start. If there is one thing that Tsui is good at, it would be the ability to accentuate on-screen action with an uncommon visual flair, and once again, Tsui tips his hand in the numerous fast-paced, slickly-edited, and laws-of-physics-defying action sequences found here.
Among the knockout set pieces you will be privy to include: a fever-pitched gun battle set in high-rise tenements; the fate of an unlucky soul stepping into a pile of hand grenades captured in 'bullet-time'; a tear gas-shrouded shootout in the Kowloon Train Station that spills over into the Hong Kong Coliseum during the middle of a rock concert; and the microscopic detail of what happens inside a handgun when you pull the trigger. In addition to the eye candy employed in the action sequences, Tsui employs some visual shorthand in the film's non-action elements, such as a cut-away shot that reveals $10 million hidden in a suitcase, or Tyler's police interrogation which is communicated in a quick series of zooms and dissolves. Often-imitated yet not-quite-duplicated, the 'movie magic' of Tsui's films comes from his innovative compositions and action staging, and "Time and Tide" is no exception.
Unfortunately, this 'new visual dialect', with its extensive use of shorthand and crackerjack editing, also ends up becoming a handicap for "Time and Tide", exacerbating the film's already convoluted script. I ended up having to sit through a second viewing in order to get the story straight and see how all the disjointed plot elements fit together. But then again, the writing was never the forté of Tsui's films, or of Hong Kong films in general.
Another interesting facet of "Time and Tide" is the apparent influence of fellow Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai ("In the Mood for Love") on Tsui. There is a much more 'stream of consciousness' approach in the film's narrative, as Tyler provides some reflective voiceovers throughout the film. When he sees Ah Hui for the first time, he ponders to himself how she reminds him of another woman, which triggers a recollection of an earlier run-in with Josephine, while the film's opening monologue has Tyler reflecting on the story of Genesis as he witnesses the human carnage in his bar. Of course, there really is little thematic basis for these pretentious ponderings (other than the connection between Genesis and Tyler's desire to start a new life), but any fan of films such as "Ashes of Time" and "Chungking Express" will certainly recognize this narrative style. It is particularly obvious when seen in combination with the use of handheld cameras and jump cuts, two Wong Kar-wai trademarks which Tsui also uses in great abundance here. Is this an indication of Tsui's maturation of a director, experimenting in alternative narrative forms, perhaps a hint of things to come? Only time will tell.
In the wake of the popularity of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Time and Tide" should do well with North American audiences. It may not be as strong script-wise, but Tsui Hark's legendary visual sense should help generate some fairly decent word-of-mouth, particularly among North American moviegoers in search of the next big thing from Asia. If that is the case, then the 'Steven Spielberg' of Hong Kong may finally have found the key to unlock the door to Hollywood success.