Berlinale Review: Soi Cheang’s ‘Limbo’

Limbo Movie Film

Soi Cheang’s latest film, Limbo, is a noir-heavy, atmospheric detective drama, in which complicated people delve into the complex spaces of Hong Kong’s underworld while a serial killer with a penchant for mutilation stalks the city. Severed hands keep appearing on the streets, hidden amongst the rubbish that piles up on the forgotten corners of a community that is bursting at the seams.

A veteran detective named Cham Lau (Lam Ka Tung, practically grinding out his lines through clenched teeth) teams up with a clean-cut rookie, Will Ren (Mason Lee), to investigate, and the pairing falls easily into the good cop-bad cop trope with ease. Lau fights his way through the city’s underworld, while Ren desperately tries to toe the procedural line. Things get complicated when a young woman named Wong To (Liu Cya) ends up quite literally in the detectives’ path, as the search for a serial killer suddenly becomes entwined with a redemption story.

Limbo Movie Film

It’s easy to get lost in the world of Limbo. The criminal underbelly is ever present, lingering just out of sight as it runs adjacent to the roads and train tracks of Hong Kong. Locals only catch a glimpse of the underworld as they move from one location to another, but those who inhabit it are trapped. There are no attempts at minimalism here: every shot is dominated by the environment — rubbish bags piled up in the streets, drooping power lines and mannequin limbs strewn across a floor. People are pitted against each other without any hope of escaping.

Every space becomes a maze, where potential opportunities are thwarted by something as simple as an incorrect exit, and where brief lapses in concentration have deadly consequences. The mise-en-scène is intentionally cluttered, and the city threatens to collapse in on itself. For Ren and Lau, the uncertainty in their own morality looms large. 

Limbo Movie Film

While Au Kin Yee’s screenplay isn’t particularly new or innovative, the tangled lives of Wong To and Lau, along with the accident that binds them, provides a biting edge to the drama. As Wong To, Liu portrays a complicated young woman who is both desperate for redemption and angry at the predicament that the detectives’ investigation has placed her in. Liu highlights To’s toughness with a swaggering gait and steely determination, and snarls out her lines as her character fights both sides of society. 

In Limbo’s murky world, Cheang’s cinematic atmosphere feels almost futuristic — the monochrome cinematography flattens and enhances, turning Hong Kong into a hinterland where the rules of society have fallen by the wayside. Rain bursts from the heavens and cuts paths through the grime that lingers in the streets, creating a sense of uncertainty. While Limbo may not be groundbreaking with its formulaic detective narrative, the sheer sense of place and space that Cheang creates allows for a visceral cinematic experience.

Rose Dymock (@rosedymock) is a freelance film critic and culture writer from the UK. Her interests are multilingual cinema, thrillers and British film. She is the Festivals Editor for Screen Queens and has bylines at Film Inquiry, Little White Lies and Zavvi.