Crime Scene is a monthly Vague Visages column about the relationship between crime cinema and movie locations. This Time and Tide essay contains spoilers. Hark Tsui’s 2000 film features Nicholas Tse, Wu Bai and Candy Lo. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.
The city is always dying: it’s such a consistent theme in this column that it may as well be the alternative title. Nearly all of the featured films thus far are about death and renewal, how the spatial geography of the urban space is deeply linked with the psychologies of protagonists, themes and filmmakers.
Hark Tsui’s Time and Tide is as fine and fertile example of that theme as any. It’s a frenetic, fast-paced Hong Kong action film. But placed in the context of Tsui’s filmography and in the context of the focal city’s history, it feels like a poignant tribute to Hong Kong and its unique, incredible film industry — the glory days of which have long since passed into history.
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Tsui was and still remains an absurdly prolific filmmaker, with some 50+ productions listed on IMDb, though this doesn’t count films he was alleged to have ghost-directed. After emerging as part of the Hong Kong New Wave in the late 70s and early 80s, he cemented himself as one of the most inventive and energetic of the city’s filmmakers, turning his hand to martial arts romps, historical wuxia, absurdist fantasies and romantic comedies. Once Upon a Time in China (1991) broke both Tsui and actor Jet Li as major names in the West. And after John Woo began his American sojourn with Hard Target (1993), so too followed Ringo Lam with Maximum Risk (1996) and Tsui with Double Team (1997), all three of which incidentally star Jean-Claude Van Damme (why that’s the case is for another article).
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Given that Tsui had studied in the U.S. during the 70s and spent time afterwards working in New York on the outskirts of the city’s film industry, one might assume he would have been the best placed of all three aforementioned directors to thrive in America, but it was not to be. Tsui’s two Hollywood films, Double Team and Knock Off (1998), were critical and commercial failures, albeit unfairly judged to be so. Both films are chaotic, imaginative excavations of the globalized modern world, masquerading as dumb action films.
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It is Knock Off that’s particularly relevant for this column before moving on to Time and Tide. Another Van Damme vehicle, it stars the lead and Rob Schneider as knock-off merchants in Hong Kong who become embroiled in a conspiracy to send fake jeans rigged with nano-bombs to the USA, with a script written by the man behind the 1994 Street Fighter film.
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Now, once you’ve processed this information, we can go further. Knock Off’s entire nonsense plot is set around the eve of Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China in 1997 (ending 156 years of British presence in the city). Filming with American money in Hong Kong, Tsui saw in this script an opportunity to reflect on the shifting nature of what it means to be a Hong Konger. The region’s time first as a colony and then as a British Overseas Territory included a period of prolific growth, creating one of the world’s largest financial centers, and — for us cinephiles –one of the world’s great film industries. It might be the closest thing the British came to producing a “successful” colony.
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But that existed alongside rampant inequality and raw capitalism, an ideological ballast existing right outside of the reach of the Chinese Communist Party over on the mainland. If it was “successful,” it was only because the British needed it to be so as to prove a point, and even then with limitations. The Handover, despite promises made by the CCP of “one country, two systems,” provoked a great deal of anxiety and fear amongst Hong Kongers, particularly about being subsumed into the totalitarian state apparatus built by Mainland China, fears now made visibly real by the brutal crackdown on protesters since the Umbrella Revolution in 2014.
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Knock Off used that anxiety about the handover to tell a story about a globalized, multi-national Hong Kong which features Van Damme singing in Cantonese and a small army of Hong Kong studio actors filling the screen. It’s a film that attempts to deal with the fracturing, disruptive events shaping the city’s identity, taking place firmly in Hong Kong’s always-recognizable locales. The protagonist’s identity crisis (adopted as a child into a Chinese family, now a businessman specializing in selling fake goods) dovetails nicely into Hong Kong’s then-reputation as something of a Wild East, a place where anything could happen, retaining a peculiar fascination for Westerners looking for a place to lose themselves. That fascination is wonderfully explored in the Chinese-American filmmaker Wayne Wang’s Life is Cheap… But Toilet Paper is Expensive (1989); any would-be programmers looking for a great double-bill ought to be putting the two together.
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Time and Tide saw Tsui’s return to the Hong Kong film industry, this time casting popstars Nicholas Tse and Wu Bai as his leading men, but the thematic concern over what it means to be a Hong Konger is still there: this is a crime movie deeply rooted in the geography and architecture of the city. The plot, or what I can ascertain of it (during my rewatch, I understood even less of the narrative than the first time round), tells of Tyler (Tse) becoming a bodyguard for a local gangster’s security agency, where he meets jaded hitman Jack (Bai) and the two become friends with an uneasy professional relationship. Swirling around both of them are pregnant women (Jack’s girlfriend, and a lesbian with whom Tyler has a one-night stand), and there’s also some missing money involved and a South American cartel. None of this really matters. What Tsui is interested in is fragmenting and abstracting the action to the point of surrealism.
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The tried-and-tested rules of Hong Kong cinema have action sequences dominated by strict cause-and-effect in Time and Tide. Spatial geography is respected and fluidly edited together: one usually has a clear idea of where the goodies and the baddies are in a gunfight, or how a punch connects to the body. With the aid of regular editor Marco Mak, Tsui pushes these elements of cause-and-effect outwards until they explode, using handheld movements, freeze frames and temporal breaks to create a shape-shifting, uncanny effect within the fight scenes. He also strips back the music where most directors will opt for either crash-bang-wallop musical scores, or thumping techno as was the style during Time and Tide’s era. Tsui opts for something of a more ambient, downtempo soundtrack, giving the action a ghostly effect.
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Beyond Time and Tide’s editing and the strange musical choices are the locations: a hotel conference room, an airport runway, a train terminal. In-between: impermanent places. Normally busy and crowded, Time and Tide’s action takes place in emptied-out versions of these locales: the hotel fight scene taking place in service corridors, the train terminal emptied out of passengers. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, its central area packed with skyscrapers left, right and center. Tsui shapes these places with an eye to their vertiginous nature, looking up and down as much as left and right, as if falling down an endless tunnel. To watch these locations emptied out is to watch a city hollowed out, a city vacant.
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Two other action set-pieces take place in a tenement building (since demolished) and a stadium. Again in Time and Tide, Tsui empties them out. The tenement building seems mostly devoid of denizens, though the director utilizes their dizzying architecture to play with the viewer’s sense of space, once again pushing up and down as well as left and right. The set-piece at the stadium is even stranger. Where most directors would construct the action around crowd panic, Tsui has the fight happen high above in the stage catwalks, the audience oblivious to the high-wire acts going on above them. It’s a fine metaphor for the future of Hong Kong — a people oblivious or perhaps more accurately a people without agency in their own destiny, deployed as pawns between two major world powers. A people otherwise anonymous in the city.
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This ghostly abstraction achieves the exact effect opposite of the standard action film, turning Time and Tide towards reflectivity and introspection. There’s actually more in common here, thematically speaking, with countryman Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001), both films reflecting on the status of their country as the 20th century fades into memory and the transnational 21st century takes charge. In the background of all three films is the spectre of Mainland China, lurking and increasingly imposing its cultural and political gravity on its neighbors.
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Time and Tide seems to gaze both forward and backwards at once, its breaking down of editing structure creating a strange discombobulating effect. It’s an elegy to the Hong Kong that once existed, defined by a film industry to which Tsui was integral. And yet Time and Tide feels cognizant of the reality that this is maybe the last gasp of the chaos and freedom that emerged from that film industry. And the fact that Tsui is now making predominantly making propaganda pieces for the Chinese Communist Party feels like a full circle moment of the most depressing kind. No matter how brilliant you are, no matter how imaginative, the machine always swallows you whole eventually. Perhaps Tsui is happy making these films. Perhaps he doesn’t care, doesn’t mind, doesn’t think about it. That downward spiral is already apparent in Time and Tide, a work at conflict with the future and with the past.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.
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