Love Battlefield

So a short plug for my favorite NYC Chinatown DVD store, Lai Ying. I make my usual weekly pilgrimage and pick up a few films that sound interesting and a few that don’t and go to pay for them. Paul who pretends to work there tells me I have to get this film called “Love Battlefield” too and I look skeptically at him and go “I don’t think so – not with a name like that”, but Paul knows an easy mark when he sees one and continues that this is really good and I take a closer look at the DVD and go – oh no – I am not getting stuck with another Eason Chan film. I don’t really dislike Eason – he is not in the same awful class as that other funny “E” name Edison, but I just find him tiresomely bland and always come away wondering why directors continue to cast him in films. Still Paul continues to badger me – not something he generally does so I rethink – on one side is the fact that I am told that Paul has a poster of Ekin above his bed and so this makes any opinions of his suspect in my eyes – on the other hand I notice that this film is directed by Cheang Pou Soi.

With the dull exception of “The Death Curse”, Cheang Pou Soi has within the past few years become one of the more interesting directors in Hong Kong. After a few very low budget films that I believe were shot on video, he broke through critically in 2000 with the moody and peculiar drama, “Diamond Hill”, starring Carrie Ng and Maggie Poon that I thought was extremely effective. He followed this with two of the best horror films to come out of Hong Kong recently – “Horror Hotline” and “New Blood” – both work wonders with small budgets and really avoid one of the traditional Hong Kong horror pitfalls by completely eschewing comedy and sticking with a straight ahead fast moving narrative that is creepy and disturbing. Then in 2003 came “The Death Curse” with the Twins and I thought another talented edgy director has bitten the dust by selling out to idol commercialism. But I had lingering hopes and bought the film and Paul smiled like a Cheshire Cat as he gladly took my money. And what do you know, Paul was right – I guess everyone has to get lucky sometimes – this really is a terrific film that took me completely by happy surprise.

This is a film that perhaps the less you know the more you may enjoy it – so my synopsis will be brief and if you want to stop now it may be advisable. With all the romantic comedies coming out of Hong Kong of late that say less about real emotions or real love than a bad fortune cookie, it was a joy to find a film that really displays the power of love without once smacking you over the head with sugary commercial emotion or smaltzy musical video like interludes. By the end of the film their love lies visible like their open wounds – raw and painful. It doesn’t begin that way and about five minutes into it I was thinking I am going to kill Paul – all I need is another “relationship” film about a couple falling in and out of love, but it soon takes a swift turn into a 90-minute nail biting session. Eason meets Niki Chow (also in Horror Hotline and New Blood) on vacation and they quickly become an item back in Hong Kong as they move in together and gather their circle of friends around them (Raymond Wong, Kenny Kwan) and try to adapt to one another over time. Then comes a very bad day that tests their bonds to the ultimate.

A vacation to Europe is planned and as they get ready to go they discover that their car has been stolen and this leads to a big fight between them in which all the small resentments that were saved up like bad pennies flood out and they decide to break up. Driving away in a cab to his job at the hospital, Eason soon spots his apparently abandoned car and decides to call Niki to tell her that he is sorry and that they still have time to make it to the airport. But in fact the car is not abandoned – in it is a man with a gunshot wound and the rest of this Mainland gang headed by Wang Zhi Wen kidnap Eason to help keep their comrade alive. They have a drug deal to make and a boat to catch and if their wounded friend doesn’t make it there alive neither does Eason.

The gang is completely merciless and brutal, but also very tight knit and fanatically loyal to one another – and they are soon joined by Wang’s wife (Qin Hai Lu – Durian Durian, Public Toilet) who is just as tenacious, loyal and ready to kill. Niki figures out what has happened to Eason and goes to the police, but when they are no help she goes out on a frantic search of her own to save her man and as the day draws on it gets bloodier and deadlier and the chances of this couple making it to the end seem very bleak. It’s a terrific ride and absolutely tense at times as the story swings back and forth between the two of them and between life and death. There are a couple "dumb" moments in the film when you wonder why a character does or doesn't do something - at one point I found myself thinking - "Run Eason, run like hell" but the film is so fast moving once it gets cranked up that it doesn't give you much time to wonder. Eason is still Eason in my mind, but this role as just an average joe who is at the wrong place at the wrong time fits him well. Niki is terrific as she finds the courage within to face these bad guys head on, but the gang couple are also wonderful - very charismatic in a tough way and in the end their love is just as strong and sacrificial as that of Eason's and Niki's. The power of love. Sometimes it saves you. Sometimes it kills you.

My rating for this film: 7.5