So Close

Hsu Chi walks into the building with a mysterious breeze that follows her and blows her long hair at just the right photogenic moments. Dressed in an immaculate white pantsuit that looks as if it has never had a day of trouble in its life and lips so glossed that they belong on the cover of a fashion magazine for women without enough romance on their plate, she is ushered into the chief executive's office after a close security check that she smiles through like a Cheshire cat about to lap up some cream. Hsu Chi hasn’t come for cream or a fashion show though, she has come to kill and she tells him so that he knows its coming. Her mission accomplished and the bodyguards taken care of with a stiletto heel into the ceiling that allows her to hang upside down and shoot them, she turns the syrupy old ballad “Close to You” on her headphones and calmly shoots her way out of the building and to the roof top where she jumps off and calls home on the way down to get dinner ready. It’s all absurd of course but very cool in the way only Hong Kong professional killers can be cool.
Though the overarching plot of this film couldn’t fill a thimble and is more than a little silly, there are more than enough good scenes that stand on their own and make this film a constant pleasure and visual delight. Looking good is admittedly the main thing here – but nothing wrong with that if you bring some feelings along with it and if you look this good. The film has style and throws it at you in gobs and never stops to apologize for it. I hadn’t really expected much from this film but it delivers in a number of surprising ways.
It takes itself seriously for one thing. With three women – Hsu Chi, Vicky Zhao and Karen Mok – taking center stage in an action film there were many pre-release comparisons to Charley’s Angels – but other than having three women who are action figures there is really nothing in common. While Charley’s Angels was all jiggly breasts, cleavage and come on camp, So Close keeps its sexuality at an intriguing simmer – its more glamour than sex here – and the three actresses try and give their characters a sense of being real (or as real as one can be under the circumstances!) as opposed to male fantasy figures. Not that I didn’t find Charley’s Angels fun for what it was, but I was glad to see this film for the most part avoiding the “aren’t we adorable and don’t we have great asses” factor.
There are two romances in this film and though one of them is primarily used as a plot convenience, the other is very innocent but has a sexually hungry undercurrent that was more than a bit intriguing. Hsu Chi meets an old boyfriend (Korean actor Song Seung Heon) and some damp sparks try to light up the night – but it fortunately takes up only a few minutes of the running time and really goes nowhere. Apparently, there was a love scene shot with them (a glimpse can be seen in the trailer), but it was edited out of the film. Never thought the day would come when I would say that I was glad to see a Hsu Chi love scene end up on the editing floor, but it would only have distracted from the real love stories here. As a note, in an interview Hsu Chi stated that she was very annoyed that the scene had been shot and then discarded – “why make me shoot it then?” – well Hsu Chi - maybe because the film crew was all male?
The real romance here takes place between Vicky and Karen – there is more understated chemistry and playful flirting going on here in their attempts to escape, catch or kill one another than in most romance films I see these days. There is a lovely small scene in a record store in which Vicky comes face to face with Mok for the first time and almost melts and feels a need to leave Mok a hint as to who she is. At one point Vicky asks Karen “if you weren’t a cop and I wasn’t a killer, would you love me” to which Mok can only remain stoically silent. Later when they fight side by side, they protect each other like old lovers – knowing each other’s moves like sexual clockwork. The other love in the story that hits a nice chord is the one between the two sisters, Hsu Chi and Vicky. Brought up together after their parents were killed, there is a bond between them that is very strong, loyal and loving.
The film also has some neat technology that I want for Christmas this year. The father (Henry Fong Ping) of the sisters invented this gizmo that will let you connect up to any camera security system anywhere and watch what is going on. It comes in very useful in the field of professional assassins as Vicky stays on the computer at home and guides Hsu Chi through a minefield of dangers and enemies and allows her to stay a step ahead all the time. I would have so much fun with this!
The action in the film is excellent and plentiful. Sure, in real life these three could not fight off a persistent mosquito – but its clear that they put in a lot of time and effort to make their action scenes look damn good. Director Corey Yuen also makes sure that they look as good as one could expect. Their moves are fluid, graceful, imaginative and the camera tracks it all very well. There is a good mix of gunplay, acrobatics, hand-to-hand, sword-to-sword and CGI and most of it had a real zing to it. I would venture to say that of the New Age action films of the past few years, this might have the best choreography of any of them. There are three big set pieces and a few minor ones. The final twenty minutes of the film is nearly non-stop action that begins with a car chase through Hong Kong, intermixed with Hsu Chi fighting off hordes of killers while helping her sister escape capture and ends with an incredible blast as the bad guys bring in two authentic movie fighters to take them on – Ben Lam and Yusuaki Kurata. The match up against Kurata in particular is impressive and brutal as he shows that he hasn’t lost much and the swordplay is well filmed.
Lets not forget of course that these are beautiful actresses. Hsu Chi has rarely if ever looked lovelier – she just glistens with glamour – and some of the close ups of her legendary face are ten car pileups in the making. She owns the screen for the first half until her little sister comes into her own and Vicky just melts your heart with her fleeting smile and big-doe-eyed capriciousness. Mok has never in truth been a favorite of mine, but she is terrific here – a very physical performance and much less flashy than the other two – but her intelligence and determination is what gives the film its substance.
The film certainly has a myriad of weaknesses as well – the main one being that their motivations for being professional killers is never very clear and secondly they just don’t make very good fodder for this game – they are so sweet and tender that one has to suspend belief for the entire film that they can kill without a second thought or remorse. It also has its share of plot holes and unlikely co-incidences, but for me these are easily outweighed by the positives and certainly every time I hear “Close to You” from now on I’ll envision Hsu Chi in chic white, gun in hand and Vicky on roller skates with a hungry twinkle in her smile.
As a note of caution – the VCD of this film is fullscreen and only has the Cantonese track. Avoid it. I saw it first and thought the film was fun and a decent “Girls with Guns” film – but after seeing the DVD my opinion of the film rose considerably. First the widescreen is necessary to capture the action scenes – but even more important is that you should pick the Mandarin track. The Cantonese track has both Hsu Chi and Vicky dubbed and it is awful and really hurts their performances. On the Mandarin track, that is their voices and Mok’s as well for the most part. It makes a huge difference. And for those who are terrified by Hsu Chi’s voice – rest assured – that is her Cantonese voice which for some reason she speaks at a considerably higher pitch. In her native tongue of Mandarin, her voice is much deeper and to my ears quite attractive. The DVD though is region 3, but Columbia should be putting one out at some point.

My rating for this film: 8.5

For more screen captures of this film click here and here.