Director: Longman Leung and Sunny Lok
Cast: Jacky Cheung, Nick Cheung, Shawn Yue, Chang Chen, Choi Siwon, Ji Jin Hee, Wang Xue Qin, Janice Man
Runtime: 2 hrs
Rating: NC-16 (Violence)
Released By: Clover Films and Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 30 April 2015
Synopsis: Helios, a most wanted criminal in the global radar, has stolen the South Korean military’s latest mass destruction weapon: a handheld nuclear device DC8 and 16 uranium spheres. An underground trading of the stolen weapon is due to take place in Hong Kong. Chinese envoy Song An, Hong Kong’s Counter Terrorism Response Unit Chief Inspector Lee Yin-ming and South Korean weapon expert Choi Min Ho are all gathered in Hong Kong on a mission to recover the weapon. Physics professor Siu Chi-yan joins the team as consultant. Beneath the shared goal of recovering the weapon, the three regions’ representatives are all armed with hidden agendas. Choi not only has to capture Helios and recover the weapon but needs to prevent the leaking of national classified information. Song has China’s interests in mind. And on top of resolving the unit’s biggest crisis since its conception, Lee and Siu have to grapple with the tension between the two countries. Although the Hong Kong police manage to capture Helios’s assistant and recover the weapon, a diplomatic dispute between China and South Korea on who owns the confiscated nuclear device is unleashed. Meanwhile, Helios pops up in Macau, determined to reclaim the weapon and avenge his earlier defeat. In the final showdown, no one is safe from the danger and conspiracies that lurk underneath.
No longer content to play on the domestic stage, writers-directors Longman Leong and Sunny Luk take their unique blend of politics and explosive action to the international arena in their sophomore film. Amidst a terrorist threat with the casualty of nuclear destruction, the duo expound not only on the real-world power dynamics between Hong Kong and China that was a running theme in their critically and commercially acclaimed debut ‘Cold War’ but also relations between China and the rest of the world – and by that, we mean the Koreans whose weapon named DC8 is at the centre of the crisis as well as the US and the UK, who are apparently closely watching how the Chinese deal with terrorist elements on their own soil.
From the very first frame, it is clear that Leong and Luk are playing on a much bigger scale. Whereas an explosion in Mongkok and the disappearance of an EU van heralded the start of the police operation of the same name in ‘Cold War’, it is the aftermath of a plane crash that sets the scene for the events to follow here. Not only is there one less body than the number of people on the passenger manifest, the nuclear WMD on board has been stolen, with CIA and MI5 intel pointing to Interpol’s most wanted criminal Helios (Chang Chen) and his assistant Messenger (Janice Man). That same intel also points to the fact that Helios intends to sell the weapon to an Eastern European buyer in the city of Hong Kong itself, and it is hence on the territory’s soil that the law enforcement agencies of South Korea, China and Hong Kong converge.
Taking charge of the manhunt from Hong Kong is Inspector Eric Lee (Nick Cheung), who recruits a renowned physics professor Siu Chi-yan (Jacky Cheung) to provide the scientific explanations and analysis. Together with Eric’s junior Fan Ka-ming (Shawn Yue), they are joined by weapons expert Colonel Choi Min-ho (Ji Jin-hee) and the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) top agent Park Woo-cheol (Choi Si-won) from Korea. That alliance is however complicated by the sudden entry of a high-powered Mainland Chinese government official Song An (Wang Xueqi), who invokes Article 13 of the Basic Law to assert the Central Government’s rule over the proceedings.
Uncharacteristic for a film of its genre, the threat is in fact retrieved and neutralised within the first half-hour, so there is no race against time to speak of; instead, the real drama unfolds ironically after the authorities have found and disarmed the bomb. Whereas Chi-yan urges that the DC8 be shipped out of Hong Kong immediately to eliminiate any possible threat to its residents, Song opposes the handover on account of “national security”, asserting the kind of paternalistic authority which has been the subject of much unrest in recent months. For the ingenuous, that may bolster the accusations by the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ that China really does not have Hong Kong’s interests at heart, but despite the similarities with real-life geopolitical realities, you’d be better off just taking it at face value.
Even to a casual observer of world events, Long and Luk’s politics does seem shaky; but no matter its accuracy, the power plays among the various factions make for riveting viewing, especially as each side begins to plot against the other to protect its own vested interest. Unlike in ‘Cold War’, the politicking here is beautifully weaved into the plotting, which in turn generates a certain dramatic momentum that propels the story forward with grace and urgency. Rather than being stuck in ideological impasse therefore, the movie stays firmly in fifth gear as Helios exploits the disunited coalition to regain possession of the DC8 and eliminate those who have crossed him or his assistant along the way – and without revealing any spoilers, let’s just say that the body count builds up unexpectedly fast towards the end.
It might also be good to prepare yourself that ‘Helios’ does conclude on an open note which clearly paves the way for a sequel; even then, it does end with a bang than a whimper thanks to a last-minute twist that we must say is quite jaw-droppingly excellent. Because of that same measure, there is no big action finale to top off a very tense two hours, though the set-pieces in between expertly choreographed by Chin Kar-lok more than make up for it. A raid on a multi-storey indoor car park in Jordan where an arms deal is going down is edge-of-your-seat exhilarating because of the perfect combination of gunplay and vehicular stuntwork; on the other hand, a foot chase along the alleys of Macau’s Vila de Taipa culminates in an exciting MMA-styled brawl between Nick Cheung and Janice Man, the former putting his ‘Unbeatable’ skills to good use. The sequences are not showy in themselves, but this is signature Hong Kong action – gritty, realistic, and most importantly, cleanly shot.
Given how the plot takes centrestage, it is perhaps inevitable that character development does fall by the wayside; that said, you never know less than enough to understand why a particular character is acting the way he or she is. Among the ensemble, Jacky Cheung stands out with his carefully nuanced performance, and we promise that you’ll see the actor in a whole different light by the time the credits roll. Nick Cheung is a reliable supporting part, while veteran Wang brings his usual gravitas to a somewhat underwritten role. Quite pleasantly surprising is how Korean stars Ji and Choi seem right at home in this movie, and you’ll only need to see ‘Dragon Blade’ to know how such a quality should never be taken for granted.
With ‘Helios’, the former award-winning production designer Leung and the well-known assistant director Luk have truly graduated to become filmmakers in their own right. In both storytelling and direction, the duo have learnt from the shortcomings in ‘Cold War’ to deliver a tautly-paced narrative that blends the archetypal Hong Kong thriller with their distinct feel for politics. Even with its pan-Asian element, this is a quintessential Hong Kong action blockbuster – taut, gripping and though without CGI, perfectly capable of setting your pulses racing.
(Blending old-school Hong Kong action with their distinct feel for politics, the sophomore film from the writing-directing duo of ‘Cold War’ is a taut, gripping thriller that keeps you guessing)
Review by Gabriel Chong