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Wo Hu
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(left) Jordan Chan and Francis Ng, and (right) Shawn Yue and Eric Tsang.

AKA: Operation Undercover
Chinese:

臥虎

 
Year: 2006
Director: Marco Mak Chi-Sin
Exec. Dir.: Wang Guang-Li
Producer: Wong Jing, Y.Y. Kong
Cast: Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Miu Kiu-Wai, Jordan Chan Siu-Chun, Julian Cheung Chi-Lam, Shawn Yue, Sonja Kwok Sin-Nei, Kenny Wong Tak-Bun, Yueh Hua, Qin Hailu, Joe Cheung Tung-Cho, Johnny Chen (Lu Sze-Ming), Timmy Hung Tin-Ming, Patrick Tang Kin-Won, Lam Chi-Sin, Zuki Lee Si-Pui, Nie Yuan, Na Wei
The Skinny: More undercover cop/triad shenanigans from Wong Jing and Marco Mak, which isn't a bad thing at all. Wo Hu is meandering and uneven, but it's also interesting and entertaining, and contains some surprisingly funny and even powerful moments. The ensemble of actors is fine, with Francis Ng and Eric Tsang leading the pack.
 
Review
by Kozo:

It's more undercover action and angst courtesy of Marco Mak and Wong Jing, who've turned out some semi-decent crime/cop thrillers in the last couple of years. Wo Hu (AKA: Operation Undercover) is the latest from the duo, and it owes an immediate debt to the seminal Infernal Affairs. Besides the obvious casting nods (Eric Tsang, Francis Ng, Shawn Yue), Wo Hu references the film explicitly. When looking for fresh undercover recruits, one cop character suggests that they hire Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and the film's prologue ends with a mass of potential undercovers leaving the police academy like Shawn Yue in the original IA. The premise here is that the cops aren't sending in just one undercover cop, they're sending in a whole army to take down the triads. Dubbed "Wo Hu", the operation involves cooperation between the cops and the massive amount of undercover agents, supposedly numbering between 500 to 1000 people. That's a pretty large number.

Naturally, the triads get wind of this undercover activity, and soon react. Respected triad boss Jim (Eric Tsang) singles out Eric (Timmy Hung) as an undercover, and sends a low-level triad (Shawn Yue) to assassinate him. The triad (aptly called "Killer" in the subtitles) carries out the hit, but is unsuccessful at fleeing Hong Kong, meaning he may come back to haunt Jim one day. Meanwhile, the other triad bosses, including genial Walter (Francis Ng) and hot-headed Tommy (Julian Cheung), are ordered to maintain a low profile to keep the cops off them. That's a tall order, because there are rivalries between various parties, some which grow to murderous proportions. The glowering Tommy is pissed because he thinks his triad brothers are using the increased pressure from the cops to take his assets from him. The first victim of an undercover sting, Tommy must flee, and leaves his businesses to Jim. However, he doesn't trust Jim's nice guy act, and begins to plot against him. Meanwhile, lead cop Wai (Miu Kiu-Wai) oversees everything behind a cool pair of designer shades. Somewhere in all of this there's supposed to be a movie.

Well, there is a movie in all of this, but it's not the heavy crime film that the cast and genre may lead us to believe. Though there are supposed to be 500+ undercover agents out there, the film contains few indentifiable ones. Other than Timmy Hung's undercover, who gets dispatched early in the film, we only meet two other undercover officers, and one of them isn't really on the job anymore. Officer Wai was once an undercover, but he may have participated in some shady stuff while posing as a triad, adding some shades of gray to his role as the officer in charge of "Wo Hu". The fiilm's main focus is how the triads are dealing with the supposed surge in undercover activity, as they try to take advantage of each others losses while holding onto their own territories and assets. Still, while there's some tension in the two-faced dealings, it's not exceptionally potent. The film concerns itself with an abundance of subplots, not all of them crime-related, which sucks some energy from the narrative. Sometimes the overarcing "Wo Hu" plotline seems more perfunctory than crucial; when Wai finally calls in all his markers for the grand finale of "Wo Hu", it's just a quick montage of a bunch of people being dragged in. A riveting thriller, Wo Hu is not.

What it is, however, is pretty entertaining. The film lacks much momentum, and even seems to meander, but there's involving and even fun stuff in the film's shifting focus. Some of the triad issues are played to comic effect, such as when Walter gets his assets frozen, his own triad followers try to escape paying his dinner bills. Likewise, triad boss Fei (Jordan Chan) is comically henpecked by his wife, and sometimes does his job in a hilariously poor manner. Fei is in charge of recruitment, but it's not very threatening when he recruits old men or guys who can't stop laughing to show up at tense restaurant-set standoffs. Wo Hu possesses an interesting take on the triad life, presenting triad members less like caricatures and more like regular guys. Jim is righteous and caring to a fault, and Walter spends a lot of time worrying about his violinist son, who, in an amusing bit of casting, is played by the same young actor who essayed Simon Yam's scarred son in the Election movies. Even the cartoonishly intense Tommy has a soft spot for his ailing mother.

This attention to ironic detail and human themes is what makes Wo Hu a surprising triad flick, though there are some details that seem suspiciously manufactured. Eric Tsang gets an odd romance with former Miss HK Sonja Kwok, who plays a perky window dresser that apparently comes from fantasy land. Her character is hard to buy because she's single, enormously pretty, adorably quirky, and actually finds Eric Tsang attractive. Still, despite the cheesy unbelievability of such a pairing, the actors make it work, and the romance does have some thematic payoff. One of the major concerns of Wo Hu is the good/bad dichotomy between cops and triads. Wai is supposed to be good, but he did some bad stuff while undercover, while both Jim and Walter are surprisingly decent guys beneath their triad titles. It helps that Jim and Walter are played by Eric Tsang and Francis Ng, both of whom bring humanity and heart to their characters. The two actors anchor the film with their sympathetic performances, but the rest of the cast helps too. Wo Hu is loaded with recognizable actors, most of whom bring instant presence to even the most minor characters.

There are a few more problems with the film. Some the script's drama is obvious and overdrawn, and Marco Mak's stylish direction occasionally crosses the line into laughably melodramatic. However, Mak also stages some startlingly dramatic sequences, including one brutal beating that gets its point across powerfully. Still, despite the flashes of violence, it's the quieter moments that manage to stick with the audience. At one point, Jim and Walter sit around and muse if they're really good guys, and the moment underlines what's enjoyable about Wo Hu. Even though they're supposed to be "bad" guys, the two men are really quite likable, such that it's easy to care for them when they finally meet their fates. Wo Hu's uneven direction and wandering focus prevent it from being rated as truly exceptional, but it's a clever and entertaining film worthy of the Hong Kong Cinema label. Wong Jing, we owe you an apology. (Kozo 2006)

 
Notes:

• The title Wo Hu is pronounced as Ngor Fu in Cantonese, and is an abbreviation of two phrases. The "ngor" is taken from ngor dai, meaning "undercover", while the "fu" is taken from da fu lo, meaning "beat up the tigers", a phrase referring to triad-supression operations. Got it? Good.

Awards: 43rd Golden Horse Awards
• Nomination - Best Actor (Francis Ng Chun-Yu)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Joy Sales Film and Video Distributors
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras

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