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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

Laugh Riot Encore: Herman Yau’s TURNING POINT

Turning Ppint

What is the point of a prequel? Is it meant to flesh out the backstory of a popular character in order to understand how he or she came to be the hero or villain audiences have come to love? Or is it merely a crassly commercial move made to capitalize on the success of a character or series that has probably run its course, but just might have enough juice left to make a few bucks at the box office? I don’t think it’s necessarily an either/or proposition.

Still, there’s a tendency to roll one’s eyes at the mere mention of a prequel (a film trend that is already being supplanted in Hollywood by the reboot — see the back-to-basics Spider-Man 4 for evidence of that). Let’s call it “prequel fatigue.” After all, the most anticipated prequels, if not films of all time were Star Wars: Episodes I-III, which after all that fanfare, ended up disappointing both die-hard and casual fans alike. Of course, not all prequels are bad, but for every one Infernal Affairs 2, there are dozens of shoddy “origin” flicks like Hannibal Rising (Lecter was a samurai!) and Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (Who needs Newman and Redford? We got the Greatest American Hero and the Substitute!).

Why do prequels often suck? Well, sometimes they tell us a story we already know, so there’s no dramatic tension. We’re basically just watching a movie go through the motions to reach a predetermined outcome. At least with Star Wars, there was a central mystery to be uncovered — what made Anakin Skywalker  turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader? And as we all found out, it was something we never anticipated: yep, mass genocide was a direct result of everybody calling him “Annie” all the time. But I digress. The point I’m trying to make here is that sometimes prequels just can’t live up to the originals.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but for me, a good prequel is consistent with the events covered in the source text, shows us something we didn’t know about the character, and if it actually does contradict things we already know, then it’s done in an elegant and purposeful way. On top of that, a good prequel should be able to stand on its own, so newcomers can understand everything without seeing the original film or reading the Wikipedia page before showtime.

And that brings me to Turning Point — the prequel to a TVB drama called E.U. that focuses on the origin and exploits of the popular undercover cop, Laughing Gor, played by Michael Tse. I’ve seen the movie twice: once in Mandarin during the summer of 2009 in Singapore and once more just recently in Cantonese on DVD. With two viewings under my belt, here are some of my thoughts in this “not-ready-for-the-LoveHKFilm.com archive” review.

Is Turning Point a proper prequel? Well, Michael Tse does reprise his role as Laughing Gor, his physical appearance and dress in the flashback scenes do resemble that of the character in similar sequences in the original series, and the five-dollar coin Laughing is constantly flipping on E.U. makes an appearance as well. Heck, Ron Ng and Sammul Chan even show up as the characters from the show, and “Hau” (Michael Miu) gets namechecked at the end. Even more amusing, there’s also an in-joke involving a certain ubiquitous ringtone — EVERYBODY in E.U. had the same ringtone, and it’s no different here.

But other than those references, the film is mostly incompatible with E.U. None of the original TVB writers were involved with the film, and it shows.The funny thing is, Laughing’s backstory was already covered in the TV series. He was a model police academy student who is asked to go undercover. Because of his mission, Laughing ends up alienating himself from his policewoman girlfriend, a lifelong regret that he’ll take to the grave. He’s a low level triad until he saves the life of To Yik-Tin (Lam Lee), an up-and-coming gangster. Laughing also ends up falling for the boss’s girlfriend-turned-wife (Kathy Chow), but he keeps that a secret until much later in the series.

In Turning Point, his path is completely different. Here, Laughing is a convenience store worker, who joins the triads to follow Brother One (Anthony Wong). His new boss orders him to join the police academy and once there, Laughing gets handpicked by his superiors to go undercover as a triad. And guess who he ends up “spying on”? — that’s right, Brother One. The “triple agent” status of Laughing is pretty funny on its own, but it doesn’t jive with what we’re told in E.U. Further, his love interest is neither Sam (Kathy Chow) nor that aforementioned policewoman. Instead, we have a new character, Karen (Fala Chen), who is the sister of a rival gangster, Zatoi (the incomparable Francis Ng).

So, as a prequel, it doesn’t line up with what came before. But how about taking the film on its own merits then? Well, Turning Point doesn’t quite work in that department either. The movie positions Laughing as an important guy, and then keeps him on the run for most of the first act. Michael Tse is likable, but he isn’t allowed to show much of the charisma that he displayed in the television show. He’s basically just running around and fighting for his life with minimal characterization. Further, the “triple agent” storyline doesn’t adequately address whatever loyalty issues he’s grappling with; in E.U., he’s an out-and-out tortured hero; here, he’s kind of a human ping-pong ball.

The sad thing is that Michael Tse largely overshadowed by his two co-leads — IN HIS OWN MOVIE! Whether Anthony Wong or Herman Yau is to blame, I don’t know, but Wong makes some eccentric acting choices that are absurd, distracting, and, to my mind, a bit too self-indulgent. Maybe he was tired of playing this type of role and wanted to do something different, but his pronounced eye shadow, ruby red lipstick, and tragically hip chapeau make him look more like a Eurasian Boy George than a credible Hong Kong gangster. He’s coded as gay, but surrounded by beautiful women. I didn’t quite get what they were going for, but I kinda felt like, if this guy was in the triads, Simon Yam or Nick Cheung from Election would probably beat him to death.

Anthony Wong’s performance aside, I have to compliment Francis Ng, who delivers a pretty interesting acting turn. Sure, he’s got a topknot and dresses like Kurt Cobain’s redneck cousin, but he’s magnetic in the role, effectively negotiating the spectrum between “gangster loose cannon” and caring older brother.

I don’t have much to say about the other big names in the cast. Yuen Biao is a welcome presence as Laughing’s police superior, and Fala Chen is pretty likable as Laughing’s love interest. The biggest cameo is from Eric Tsang, wo could probably play a gangster boss in his sleep and probably does so in Turning Point. The guy basically shows up on set, eats some takeout, barks some orders, and cashes a paycheck. Not a bad day’s work.

So what’s the verdict? Well, I have to admit that Herman Yau delivers a well-shot, largely well-acted, and competent piece of filmmaking. It’s an entertaining diversion to be sure. But it’s not really a good movie. As prequels go, it’s wildly flawed. It invalidates pretty much everything we know about Laughing. And even with its “original” spin on the character, it doesn’t quite work as its own film. Like all Hong Kong undercover cops in the movies, this film is suffering from a serious identity crisis — one that it can’t quite resolve.

**************************************

Since this isn’t a proper review, I’m going to commit a cardinal sin and tell you “how I would’ve done it” if I would’ve been asked to write and direct this movie. Look, I totally recognize the need to have big names like Anthony Wong and Francis Ng in the movie version — really, I do. What I would have done differently is simply fleshed out what was already provided in E.U. and then used those big-time actors accordingly.

In my version, Anthony Wong would’ve taken over the role of To Yik-Tin, and I would’ve brought back Kathy Chow as his wife “Sam” to have some continuity with the series. Further, Michael Miu would’ve made a short cameo to reference the crucial drug smuggling backstory that is shown in flashback in the TVB show. Eric Tsang and Yuen Biao would’ve stayed in the film, but probably renamed to better reflect similar characters in the show. Fala Chen could’ve played Laughing’s policewoman girlfriend, and their relationship would’ve been the tragic, romantic crux of the movie. And Francis Ng? Well, I would’ve brought him in as a much better dressed version of the character he plays in Turning Point– who turns out to be a doomed undercover cop and the “model” for Laughing’s future bad-assery. After all, Laughing is the kind of role Francis Ng would play if E.U. had been a movie.

That’s my take anyway. But it’s not like I went to film school or anything. Just idle chatter.

6 Responses to “Laugh Riot Encore: Herman Yau’s TURNING POINT”

  1. QQ Says:

    Alas, I agree with your script rewrite since the entire story is pretty much provided in E.U. Yes, the tv series was watered down for censors but Laughing knew his purpose and reveled in his role - he’s so emo and confused in the movie. They also very specifically marked Laughing’s rise with the knife wound (where he nearly died) and they could expand how the crush on Sum develops. The young Sum can have a good naive heart of gold prostitute story who never lies. Could have many good focused consistent developments in Turning Point that they didn’t explore.

  2. Timo Says:

    Said it before in one of your EU posts, but I feel Yau’s movie is easily superior to the whole series, and maybe that’s precisely because it eschews the whole hysterical TVB drama side of things and just goes for a simple, retro-styled triad tale that’s inferior to Yau’s own ON THE EDGE, but still quite efficient and entertaining.

    But what your post - and opinion - very well illustrates is that the film’s biggest problem is being set in the EU universe; it features a key character and similar-but-not-quite-the-same storylines, making it impossible to be clearly regarded as a wholly separate spin-off, thus pissing off EU fans - while not nearly featuring enough original substance to completely convince as a movie in its own right. It’s just somewhere inbetween, and that’s not exactly helping.

    But yet again, Yau’s direction and the Wong/Ng combo make up for it to some degree.

  3. jenny Says:

    I have never seen the original series but I rather liked Turning Point as a continuation of themes developed in On the Edge. Sure, Michael Tse’s character seems like a less charismatic clone of Nick Cheung’s and the story is weak. On the other hand, considering how many HK movies walked this path before, it was a diverting experience. Not in the least thanks to Francis Ng who revisited his character from On the Edge with much stronger results.
    Anthony Wongs approach was strange, to say the least. He was probably bored but considering how his character has lost himself in the roles he had and has to play, his choice of costumes seems like a logical extension of his psychological troubles in his appearance.

  4. kylle Says:

    As mentioned in my previous comment, my opinion is that Turning Point was vastly inferior to EU in terms of its take on the subject of undercover cops. A friend in HK pointed out that EU’s Laughing was clearly on the side of the “establishment”, something that HK’s movie industry is known to loathe. Not sure how true that is, but it would explain the complete re-write of Laughing’s backstory and personality and all that made him so well-loved by TV audiences. If you had followed the “Laughing Gor Phenomenon” that made headlines a year ago, you would have known that many considered EU’s Laughing something fresh and different and at least comparable to Tony Leung’s undercover cop in Infernal Affairs — Turning Point could have kept to that original vision, the story could have explored two undercover cops that were faced with similar choices but walked different paths, and shown us how Anthony Wong and Francis Ng’s characters figured in Laughing’s growth into EU’s version of the character… As it was, however, Turning Point gave us nothing new.

  5. Sanjuro Says:

    I actually agree with all of you. My review of E.U. has been submitted, although I’m not sure I really say anything new for those that have been following these posts. I was probably a little harder on the show than I would have been if I hadn’t just re-watched Turning Point the other day — which is funny, because I have problems with that movie, too.

  6. valerie soe Says:

    @jenny: ITA that Anthony Wong was bored with his role, although he’s such a great actor that he couldn’t help but be interesting. He collected a decent paycheck and he’s STILL wearing that Mohawk, so maybe the film made more of a dent in him than he thought it would.

    Francis Ng, on the other hand, seemed pretty committed to his role, although he also recycled some of his trademark quirks. But the character actually had me guessing by the end, not in the least because of Francis’ acting chops. But both he & Anthony needed hair and wardrobe makeovers, imho.

    I’ve never seen EU myself, but because of Turning Point my interested is piqued, especially since so many people say that Michael Tse is pretty good in it. The few unsubbed clips I’ve seen of him in it are totally different than the angsty creature in Turning Point so I want to check it out. Will look for it next time I’m in Chinatown–

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