SYNOPSIS: DEATH NOTICE is adapted from the original novel of the same name by famous suspense writer Zhou Haohui is a detective thriller and deadly game of catand-mouse. In the story, Darker, a mysterious killer who calls himself a "judge", is behind several murders that caused a sensation in the city. All those who received the "Death Notice" will be brutally killed according to the date stated in the notice. Detective Luo Fei (Julian Cheung) with the only witness, disfigured witness (Louis Koo) and the task force head (Francis Ng) to joined in the game together to find out who Darker is!
A who’s who of the Hong Kong film industry gathers in Herman Yau’s twisty vigilante thriller, which is pretty much the cinematic equivalent of a potboiler. Adapted from an actual potboiler called ‘Death Notice – The Darker’ by Zhou Haohui, the film counts Francis Ng and Julian Cheung as its leads, with such notable supporting acts as Louis Koo, Myolie Wu, Simon Yam, Chrissie Chau, Danny Chan, Babyjohn Choi, Charmaine Sheh, Waise Lee, Law Lan and Philip Keung. Not surprisingly, with the exception of Ng, Cheung and Koo, the rest are mostly glorified cameos, but it is a joy seeing the ensemble Yau has gathered here.
Like most thrillers, ‘Death Notice’ is largely plot-driven, primarily centred here around a vigilante going by the name Darker who targets criminals whom he claims the police and judiciary have failed to bring to justice. Darker’s modus operandi is to send his prospective victims a ‘death notice’ – hence the title – stating the sin for which they are being punished for as well as the date of their death sentence. Besides sending the notice to his victims, Darker also broadcasts the same to the police and on the Internet, thereby setting off a race against time to prevent an impending death as well as to uncover Darker’s true identity.
Darker’s first victim so happens to be a former police regional commander turned property agent (Lee), on the night he asks to meet former colleague Law Fei (Cheung) for dinner. Lo had left the police force 10 years ago, after failing to save his fiancée Mang Wan (Wu) and buddy (Chan) from a bomb strapped to the latter’s chest planted by Darker. After failing to apprehend Darker following an intense foot chase across rooftops of one of Hong Kong’s dense residential neighbourhoods, Lo asks to join the task force led by chief superintendent Hon Ho (Ng) to catch Darker; and much to Hon’s dismay, is granted that wish by deputy commissioner Tsang (Yam).
Teaming up with ace forensic Yam (Chau), Lo zeroes in on a disfigured survivor of the explosion from a decade back, namely a homeless man named Siu-ping (Koo) who happens to live in the village that is at the centre of a bitter fight with the property developer Kong Wah whose chairman Tang Wah (Lui) had also received a death notice. That Siu-ping is played by such a notable actor as Koo is probably clue enough that there is more to the character than meets the eye, and true enough, the last-minute twist confirms what most viewers would probably have guessed all along.
Those familiar with Yau’s style will recognise all his usual trademarks here, including his efficient if not particularly outstanding execution, a furiously paced narrative and solid action sequences. Indeed, enjoyed on Yau’s terms, ‘Death Notice’ is a guilty pleasure, especially for fans of Hong Kong cinema. Together with screenwriter Toni Shum Sek-yin, Yau crafts a densely plotted if not always logical or realistic mystery whose way of staying ahead of its audience is to pile on ever more far-fetched twists and turns, reserving its most ludicrous for the finale where Darker is revealed to be Siu-ping and then a lot more.
Like we said, this is ultimately the cinematic equivalent of a potboiler, and needs to be appreciated and enjoyed as such. Character building has never been Yau’s strong suite, and it is therefore prudent that he refrained from trying to turn this into some sort of study on either lead or even Siu-ping; instead, Yau keeps the wheels turning for an engaging one and a half hours, only leaving enough room at the end to continue the story with Darker’s mastermind. No matter that it didn’t make a lot of sense – with such a stacked up cast, and such a competent director at the helm, ‘Death Notice’ is easily one of the most entertaining Hong Kong thrillers we’ve seen in a while.
Review by Gabriel Chong