|Scud is back – deal with it. Hong Kong's most unique self-financed auteur returns to his pet themes of life, death, love, sexuality and nudity with Amphetamine, an improvement on his earlier works in that it doesn't jam its self-awareness down your throat 24-7. Not that Scud has gotten rid of that particular obsession. At one point in Amphetamine, ripped swimming instructor Kafka (Byron Pang) visits an art gallery with gay finance worker Daniel (Thomas Price), where the two take in a photo exhibition highlighting stills from Permanent Residence. They even talk about the film briefly, though thankfully neither of them says something like, "That movie was great, I loved it!" Scud, your restraint here is appreciated.
That restraint largely continues throughout Amphetamine, with the film delivering a compelling if somewhat scattered journey through one man's personal pain. That man: Kafka, who by fate meets Daniel when the two are praying at a shrine. Daniel is immediately attracted to Kafka and shows it, while Kafka holds back. That's because Kafka is straight - maybe.
But Daniel sways him, first through his ardent desire and then through understanding and care. Kafka needs more than attention, he needs love and hope, and that's because he's a drug addict, a manic-depressive, and a survivor of some awful horrors. Unfortunately, he may be too much of a mess for Daniel to fully save, and even Daniel is fully aware that if Kafka is to be helped, Kafka will have to do it himself.
It you've seen any Scud movies, you should know that there's some massive sadness coming down the pipeline - so Kafka succeeding at salvation is pretty much a dead deal from minute one. Scud's movies have never been mega-happy affairs, so expecting some kind of storybook ending from Amphetamine would not be right. This is a movie about damaged people living in a damaged world, and how they can heal and help one another – for a while anyway.
The connection and growth of Kafka and Daniel's relationship is decently conveyed if not superbly acted, and Scud’s storytelling is a step up from previous works. Instead of handing everything to the audience in self-absorbed conversation, Scud occasionally delivers observed situations and strong images. The film still possesses loaded scriptwriting, but if we grade on improvement then Scud does well here.
Scud can still improve further. Some characters are oddly constructed, acting in baffling and strangely off-putting ways. The actors aren’t always able to close the gap. Lead Byron Pang gets the meatiest material, and aside from some overacting he channels his character’s desperation well. Thomas Price is serviceable in the second lead, but the supporting females aren’t able to make their characters more than token.
Above all, Amphetamine is basically about the same stuff you saw in Permanent Residence just toned down from the previous film’s sometimes ridiculous happenings. Scud still expects his themes and ideas to speak more than his actual filmmaking, and as such his work has yet to escape that self-satisfied, pretentious feeling of a filmmaker who’s in love with his own voice. Still, his voice is thoughtful, his ideas challenging, and he possesses the ability to convincingly convey confusing, affecting and damaging emotion. If he loses the self-importance he may be able to progress another level. Actually considering the audience might help too. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, 2010)