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Eye in the Sky

(left) Simon Yam, and (right) Tony Leung Ka-Fai in Eye in the Sky.
Chinese: 跟蹤
Year: 2007  
Director: Yau Nai-Hoi  
Producer: Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Tsui Siu-Ming  
Writer: Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin-Yee
Cast: Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Simon Yam Tat-Wah, Kate Tsui Tsz-Shan, Lam Suet, Maggie Siu Mei-Kei, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Lai Yiu-Cheung, Berg Ng Ting-Yip, Samuel Pang King-Chi, Wong Wah-Ho
The Skinny: Milkyway crime film is enthralling for a good two-thirds of its running time, ultimately stumbling to a labored, though effective end. Not one of the absolute best Milkyway films, but it's still head-and-shoulders above most stuff passing for HK Cinema nowadays. A fine directorial debut for longtime screenwriter Yau Nai-Hoi.
by Kozo:

Longtime Milkyway Films screenwriter Yau Nai-Hoi makes his directorial debut with Eye in the Sky, a crackerjack crimer that enthralls thanks to a steady pace and a precise focus on cop procedure. At least, that's what happens for a good hour, after which narrative coincidence and unrealistic situations drop the film down a notch. Until then, however, Eye in the Sky is solid stuff worthy of the Milkyway name. A group of Milkyway regulars (Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Maggie Siu, Lam Suet, Eddie Cheung) welcomes a newcomer to their ranks: TVB star Kate Tsui, who plays Bo, a neophyte cop looking to join the ranks of the SU (Surveillance Unit), Hong Kong's own dedicated surveillance squad. We first meet her during an attention-grabbing opening sequence as she tails SU leader Wong Man-Chin (Simon Yam, who gained twenty pounds for his cop-with-a-gut role), who goes by the codename Dog Head. Or is she really tailing criminal mastermind Shan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), who crosses paths with Dog Head and Bo while staking out the location of his latest jewelry heist?

Director Yau earns his directorial wings from minute one, using riveting style and plenty of visual exposition to set up his players and the playing field. When the film begins, the audience isn't sure who's chasing who, and it isn't until some tense moments have passed that things become clear. Bo joins Dog Head's team as his latest recruit, taking on the unfortunate codename Piggy, while Shan pulls off his latest jewelry heist, suffering a few minor hitches that reveal that his lackeys (including Lam Suet, Berg Ng, and Lai Yiu-Cheung) may not be as smart as he is. Immediately, Dog Head's team is assigned to find the perpetrators of the crime, and Bo's status as a newbie gives Dog Head plenty of chances to explain the technique and philosophy of being an ace surveillance officer. Basically, it requires lots of patience and the willingness to put your human compassion aside, i.e. if you see someone getting beaten up, don't intervene, because it'll blow your cover. The investigation launches an intense chase, as the SU uses whatever means it has - security camera footage, rechargeable smart card (AKA: Octopus Card) tracking, sheer manpower - to deduce where the bad guys are and if they'll strike again.

This focus on cop procedure proves enthralling; the film initially moves at a steady pace with little deviation for character backstory or assorted hijinks. The film simply barrels along, creating tension with the promise that the SU and Shan's gang of thieves will one day cross paths again. There's much to enjoy in the explication of the Surveillance Unit's work; much of what the SU does in unlike what we usually see in cop movies, and seeing it explained onscreen is actually less boring than one would think. Adding to that is Shan's methods for running his heists, which sometimes parallels the SU's standard operating procedure. Shan also handles surveillance on his heists, taking up position on a nearby rooftop to survey the surroundings. This juxtaposition of active voyeurs is an intriguing one, made more so by the actors playing the roles. Tony Leung and Simon Yam inhabit their roles like seasoned pros, giving their characters immediate credibility and - in Leung's case - a dangerous unpredictability. The anticipated game of cat-and-mouse between the two is probably half of the film's enjoyment. The skills for victory here are a good eye and a quick mind, and both Shan and Dog Head have got game. Who's going to come out on top, the cat or the mouse?

Or will it be the cute ingenue? Given the obvious push Kate Tsui's been getting with Eye in the Sky, it's obvious that the cute ingenue is the one who eventually gets put front-and-center. Bo's initiation and the focus on procedure are enough to hold our attention for a while, but at the hour mark, things start to get a little labored. The procedure gets laid on thick, and seems to be working so successfully that one has to wonder if we're just going to watch a routine bust, followed by a drink at the local pub and high-fives all around. Thankfully, that doesn't happen; things go awry, and after Bo experiences firsthand the violence that comes with being a cop, the SU has to regroup to once again pursue Shan. The shift is welcome, as it removes the audience from the overload of procedural detail. But the shift also changes Bo from an ensemble player to the star, meaning the plot hinges on her emotions and her actions - which don't always come off as convincing. Tsui is fresh-faced and engaging as the young SU recruit, but she's a little out of her depth when compared to either Simon Yam or Tony Leung Ka-Fai. The climax of the film also hinges on many convenient coincidences, plus the SU seemingly loses their ability to do their job at very key moments. In Eye in the Sky, the key characters (Dog Head and Shan, not Bo) seem so smart that when they finally falter it just seems wrong.

But, luck does play a role in this cop vs. criminal chase. As the film finally points out, sometimes there's a "hand of God" involved. Eye in the Sky proffers some obvious karmic themes, which can easily be seen in the film's title plus the fates of some characters, which smack of obvious meaning. The screenwriters do have the cleverness to write some of their karmic thinking into the screenplay, in the form of a joke told by Dog Head that will unfortunately fly over the heads of those not steeped in Chinese religious rituals. The theme of the "big eye in the sky" is given little focus until the climax, however, and the way in which its forced upon the audience could have some screaming, "Cheesy!". Still, Yau Nai-Hoi sells it well; the film builds to an appropriate emotional and stylistic climax, and delivers an audience-friendly ending that should help the film get a few extra nods from Joe Q. Public. For a Milkyway film, Eye in the Sky is a rather light affair, and seems to celebrate its own style more than its themes, which are potentially quite strong. Still, unlike the best films in the Milkyway canon, the themes feel perfunctory, and fail to resonate.

Then again, for a Hong Kong Cinema fix, Eye in the Sky does the job quite well. Yau Nai-Hoi shows a fine handle for pacing and detail, and seems to echo the Milkyway house style with his occasional detours into irony. Fans of Milkyway films should find interest in the usual band of Milkyway players, including Eddie Cheung, Lam Suet, and Maggie Siu as the Surveillance Unit chief with a penchant for swearing. Kate Tsui handles her character's emotions well, Tony Leung Ka-Fai exudes calculating menace, and Simon Yam is dependably charismatic, though his fake gut (his paunch looks like twenty extra pounds plus three pillows) is a tad distracting. Tying everything together is Yau Nai-Hoi's direction, which is so assured that moments after the film ends, it seems like it accomplished more than it really did. Perhaps we shouldn't be giving credit for a hollow success, but the ride here is good enough that all can be forgiven. Nowadays, a Milkyway film is an event for Hong Kong Cinema fans, and though Eye in the Sky is a few steps below the Elections and Exileds of this world, it's still head-and-shoulders above most stuff getting released in cinemas. Johnnie To and company are still trying hard to make films - as opposed to slapdash productions designed for quick profit - and for that, we should give them our earnest thanks. Forgiving Eye in the Sky its flaws is the least we can do. (Kozo 2007)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Kam and Ronson
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
*Also available on Blu-ray Disc
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images courtesy of Milkyway Image Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen