Director: Alan Mak
Cast: Sean Lau, Nick Cheung, Karena Lam, Anita Yuen, Alex Fong, Carlos Chan, Kathy Tang, Michelle Wai
RunTime: 1 hr 54 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: mm2 Entertainment
Opening Day: 7 February 2019
Synopsis: The multi-year ICAC investigation into the Lida Conglomerate is on the brink of collapse after the CEO’s disappearance and the whistleblower’s flight to England. To salvage the case, a top ICAC agent teams with a fellow investigator (who happens to be his estranged wife) and risks their lives to bring the witness back to Hong Kong.
Despite being billed as hailing from the writing-directing duo of ‘Infernal Affairs’, ‘Integrity’ is – like ‘Project Gutenberg’ – pretty much a solo effort by one-half of the duo. And like the latter, it is only half as good as their seminal trilogy, despite a star-studded cast that includes Sean Lau, Nick Cheung, Karena Lam, Anita Yuen and Alex Fong. Oh yes, even with such solid performances by these Hong Kong veterans, this crime thriller ultimately falls apart, no thanks to some ludicrous narrative twists in the last third that completely undermines whatever measure of suspense the movie had built up before.
To writer-director Alan Mak’s credit, it is a genuinely promising setup for a film meant as the start of a trilogy. Sequestered in a hotel room is the whistle-blower Jack (Cheung), who is the prosecution’s key witness in a high-profile case of tobacco smuggling and bribery. Despite reassurance from the ICAC’s chief investigator King (Lau), Jack is still spooked that his life might be in danger, and flees to Sydney just before he is due to testify in court. So King’s boss Ma (Alex Fong) sends fellow ICAC investigator Shirley (Lam) – who happens to be King’s estranged wife – to Sydney to persuade Jack to return, while asking King to remain in Hong Kong to follow up on a couple of new leads in the same case.
As it turns out, the first defendant Chan has also vanished along with his wife and kids, such that King suspects the entire fiasco may be masterminded by the puppet master code-named Alpha Leader behind the entire illegal operation. To inject some urgency into the proceedings, the presiding judge agrees to postpone the trial only for a week, giving King just seven days to find Chan and Shirley the same to convince Jack to return to Hong Kong. That becomes impetus for King to trick the case’s other defendant Chung (Yuen) into signing a plea agreement to be the prosecution’s witness, in order to extract important information on how the whole smuggling cum money laundering enterprise is run.
At least for the first hour, Mak maintains a taut air of intrigue putting in place the various pieces of the puzzle. How far does Alpha Leader’s reach extend to? Will he get to Chan before King does? Will he get to Jack before he is able to testify? Or is there more to Jack than meets the eye? Will Shirley therefore be in danger as well? It is not easy to set up such an elaborate tease, and Mak juggles all these elements deftly enough for you to be hooked into the mystery. Undeniably, the actors play their parts beautifully too, with Lau as an assertive but ethically questionable leader, Cheung as an indecipherable poker face and Lam as a tough but warm foil to both men.
Alas anyone hoping for a satisfying answer to any of the aforementioned questions will likely be disappointed. Mak, whose forte is less in writing than in directing, quite absolutely botches the ensuing twists in the story. For reasons not quite unexplained, Alpha Leader’s restraint suddenly turns into ruthlessness, ordering not only Jack’s kidnapping but also the elimination of almost everyone who has anything to do with the case. But most significantly, Mak engineers a personal connection between King and Jack which feels utterly contrived, and is only made worse in the final few moments when that relationship draws in two individuals whom we were led to believe were sent by Alpha Leader to follow Jack.
Without giving any more away, let’s just say that Mak tries too hard to surprise his audience, and with each unfortunate revelation only succeeds in draining his film of whatever goodwill he had built up at the start – which not even the nostalgic sight of both Lau and Cheung in their younger days can quite compensate for. It says a lot when what is supposed to be the tease of the next film leaves us greeting the inevitable next chapter with more trepidation than anticipation, but that is precisely how you’d feel by the time Mak confirms that Jack is as duplicitous as we’d suspected.
Mak is also not quite as skilful a director to overcome his own screenwriting flaws, so much so that the last third comes off both overstuffed and under-developed at the same time. As a result, the pacing also suffers, taking the air out of a tightly wound atmosphere as it careens towards an improbable and unbelievable finish. Not even the two obligatory but superfluous action scenes he stuffs in at this point – including a short vehicular chase inside a carpark and a brief assassination on the slopes of a skiing resort – manages to be distracting enough, seeing as how they are poorly choreographed and hardly exciting.
Frankly, going by both ‘Gutenberg’ and ‘Integrity’, it really wouldn’t hurt for Mak and his other moviemaking half Felix Chong to settle for more straightforward storytelling. Not every movie needs have a bombshell ending, not least if it requires such a substantive leap of logic that it ends up underdoing the whole film. Those looking for a fairly engrossing two hours to spend this Lunar New Year will probably still find this a captivating enough diversion, especially to watch both Lau and Cheung chew up the scenery, but it is no understatement to say that it is no ‘Infernal Affairs’. Like we said, it starts strong but ends with a whimper, so do keep your expectations well in check.
(A strong and intriguing setup ultimately undone by some ludicruous narrative twists, 'Integrity' proves the writing-directing duo Alan Mak and Felix Chong are better off together than in solo)
Review by Gabriel Chong