Jun 5, 2013

Nightfall (2012)
Director: Roy Chow
Writers: Christine To
Starring: Nick Cheung, Simon Yam, Janice Man, Kay Tse, and Michael Wong

The Plot: Nightfall is a recent Hong Kong thriller focusing on Wong Yuen-yeung (Nick Cheung), a man who has recently been released from prison after serving twenty years for murder. Wong was arrested at the age of 19 for strangling and murdering a young girl who he was apparently quite infatuated with. Once released from jail, Wong begins to immediately stalk Zoe, the younger adopted sister of his previous victim. Zoe is a prodigious pianist, and that seems to make sense because her father Han Tsui (played by Michael Wong) is a well known musician that is respected throughout the world. What most do not realize, however, is that Han Tsui is abusive and seems to have a bizarre infatuation with Zoe as well. As Wong’s stalking continues, he is spotted following Zoe, so Han Tsui’s grip on Zoe begins to tighten further. Soon enough though, Han Tsui’s body turns up on the beach with his face completely smashed in. Inspector Lam (Simon Yam) is placed on the case, but he is having his own family problems and has had trouble understanding why his wife committed suicide and left him to look after their daughter on his own. While everything seems like it should be quite open-and-shut, in the wake of his wife’s death, Lam has become obsessed with digging deeper into his cases. As he does, he finds that this story truly isn’t as clear-cut as it first appears.

The Review
In recent years, I think that many Western viewers have become relatively disillusioned by the cinema coming from China. While it’s never safe to claim that any film market is dead, in recent years I have considered Hong Kong to be a relatively relaxed market in comparison to what it once was. While I am sure that there have been numerous great films released over the past decade that I might not be aware of, excluding the obvious Johnny To titles and such, the great films seem to be few and far between. The rambunctious Hong Kong style, a style that seemed to be filled with raw energy and aggressive action, has been missing since the years following the handover from Britain to Hong Kong. Although Nightfall isn’t a film that entirely awakens the vibe of oldschool Hong Kong action cinema, this is a larger budget thriller afterall, I would argue that it has some of the imagination and sense of daring that once dominated this market. During the opening minutes of the film, audiences can immediately tell the difference between this film and much of what is being produced on the mainland today. The sheer brutality and openly violent imagery found in the first few minutes of the movie is a very quick welcome for viewers who are looking for something different from the mainstream. While this excessively violent sequence does slow down and the movie itself ventures away from this brutality, the viewer is hooked immediately and more susceptible to the twists and turns that await them within Nightfall.

The film focuses on three men, and as it opens, it does an interesting job of showcasing the differences in the three characters. Simon Yam plays a single father dealing with a rebellious daughter. He gives her freedom, but perhaps a bit too much. She argues with him, overrides everything he says, and gives him minimal respect while also potentially blaming him for the death of her mother. On the opposite side, we are introduced to Michael Wong’s character. He gives his daughter no freedom and she rebels very little, but the psychological impact that this has had on the daughter is far from healthy. Then, finally, we have Nick Cheung. He is the hunter in the night who preys on the daughter of men. After this establishment though, the film starts to unravel a bit. The mystery surrounding the death of Michael Wong’s character is hardly as engaging as the film hopes that it is. The rudimentary police work within the film, where we follow Simon Yam and his crew throughout their search, is not nearly as interesting as the deeper character moments within the film. The audience gets hints at the hardened man that Nick Cheung’s character has become, and when we finally get exposition on this character and all of the hardships that he dealt with during his time in prison, we’re finally rewarded again with an interesting facet within the plot. The inevitable twists and turns in the story dealing with this character does finally bring the film back to being a story about fathers and daughters, but one wonders if there isn’t more that could have been done. Simon Yam’s family life is unfortunately abandoned pretty early on. The film must go thirty or forty minutes without ever checking in on Yam’s family life again. During this departure from the screen, the audience would not be blamed for simply forgetting that they existed. This loose thread in the story often feels like the biggest loss for the film as a whole, because it could have added further depth to an already strong story.

If Nightfall has one notable positive going in its favor, it has to be the terrific ensemble of actors that it collects. Simon Yam, Nick Cheung, and the always unforgettable (for good or bad) Michael Wong, all are seemingly into their roles with this film. All are interesting, but Nick Cheung is likely to be the showstealer of this group. The intense actor plays this mute character using mainly his facial expressions, and he is able to convey far more than one might expect. He comes across as scary, bizarre, and perhaps even a bit depraved at times, yet there are moments of naivete and sentimentality as well. This rudimentary villain becomes one of the most memorable pieces of the puzzle that makes up Nightfall. As we watch him stare at young girls walking the streets, to which he gives a slightly disturbed little chuckle, the audience does not know what to expect from this character. However, the adventure of his character will take the audience into numerous areas that they will likely never expect. Michael Wong also steps out in perhaps the most interesting role that I have ever seen him in. The actor, who is best known for his liberal mix of Cantonese and English in nearly all of his films, is not the first actor that I would turn to in order to play an abusive and incestuous father figure. However, this might be the first role that I have seen him in that I have found myself genuinely enjoying what he has brought to the role. He takes the role so far over-the-top that he becomes genuinely frightening throughout the film. He is completely unhinged during numerous scenes, and although his high pitched screams might at first seem humorous, the longer the scenes go on the creepier they become.

Simon Yam, who at this point in his career needs no introduction, is probably the one actor who could be accused of sleepwalking through his role. While this is not an assessment that I agree with, this is certainly not Yam’s most animated performance. Still, for this character, it seems rather fitting that he would have a more somber demeanor. He is a man who has recently turned to drinking in order to get over the death of his wife, and the rest of his social life seems to be falling apart as well. His daughter essentially blames him for the death of her mother, his boss wants him to take time off from work, and he no longer trusts his own investigative skills. Afterall, if he couldn’t spot his own wife’s depression, how observant can he really be? Despite there being some mundane scripting in this particular backstory, it does prove strong in delivering a great deal of drama.

The Conclusion
Unfortunately, Nightfall drops the ball on so much of its early promise. While it is ultimately a film about fathers and daughters, Simon Yam’s character is left out in the cold with very little to do other than being a catalyst for exposition. Still, there’s something here. With a decent amount of character depth, some clever twists during the final act, and some very engaging performances, this is one that is certainly worth giving a look. If there were a half point system in effect on Varied Celluloid, this would be a 3.5, but I’m willing to round up for this one. It gets a lower four out of five. It’s almost a great film, but no matter what I would say it’s worth checking out. If for no other reason, this one is worth looking at because of Michael Wong’s scruffy beard and psychotic performance.