A tough slice of Cantonese noir from Hong Kong’s Soi Cheang
Dir: Soi Cheang. Hong Kong. 2021. 118 mins.
At a time when the line between Hong Kong and Chinese productions is becoming increasingly blurred, Soi Cheang delivers a tough, atmospheric slice of Cantonese noir that defiantly tips its hat to the great tradition of John Woo and Johnnie To. Limbo should reach out to extreme Asian film fans outside of the former British colony who still yearn for the days when Hong Kong could be relied on to deliver regular annual doses of top-notch hard-boiled genre fare.
Soi’s dystopian vision of an Asian metropolis in the throes of a political and social identity crisis is Limbo’s most striking feature
Soi, who directed the recent ‘Monkey King’ Buddhist fantasy franchise, delivers a bracingly dark vision of the underside of Hong Kong, portrayed, in high-contrast black and white, as a place of rubbish strewn alleys, putrid and rotting from the inside, where society’s rejects eke out a living beyond the reach of the law. Though co-screenwriter Au Kin Yee is a longtime To collaborator, Limbo has none of the wry irony of, say, Mad Detective, Throw Down or PTU, all of which Au had a hand in. It treads familiar ground in some respects, for example its odd-couple cop team, but the fast-paced film’s violent forays into horror territory are not for those who like their Hong Kong crime fare sweetened with a sprinkle of humour. Limbo’s potential audience will also be skewed by one of the film’s most uncomfortable sequences, in which a Chinese woman is raped by a Japanese man – a scene that inevitably carries heavy historical baggage in eastern Asian markets, even today.
Mason Lee (son of Ang) builds on his burgeoning movie career in mainland Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema playing Will Ren, a rookie detective who is put in charge of a team looking for a gruesome serial killer whose trademark is to cut off his female victims’ left hands with a rusty tool. Previously, the de facto head of the investigation was been Cham (Gordon Lam Ka Tung, a veteran of multiple Andrew Lau and Johnnie To features). Cham is an experienced cop, but the trauma of an accident which sent his pregnant wife into a coma has made him impulsive and unpredictable. Will is a star police academy graduate, but still wet behind the ears his studious glasses perch on – his youth further rammed home by an emerging wisdom tooth that becomes the closest thing Limbo manages to a recurring gag.
The uneasy buddy act becomes an even more prickly triangle when Cham recognizes Wong To, a small-time criminal and drug runner who has just been released from prison for her part in the accident that put the detective’s wife on life support. Previously known for a few roles in mainland rom-coms, Liu Cya delivers a standout performance as a street-smart waif who, racked by guilt about what happened to Cham’s wife, turns informer for a man who despises her. Constantly under threat – from Cham, the thugs she rats on, and finally the serial killer himself – Wong To becomes a battered martyr with a raw survival instinct that feeds into Limbo’s driving energy, itself fuelled by some dazzling rapid-cut editing and cadenced by a series of emotionally draining chase sequences, done with old-school style and verve.
Soi’s dystopian vision of an Asian metropolis in the throes of a political and social identity crisis is Limbo’s most striking feature. The skyscrapers of Hong Kong feature, like the towers of some sci-fi citadel, in only a few aerial bridging shots. Most of the action takes place on the ground. in junk-filled yards below metro lines and flyovers. It’s as if the contents of a redundant, superseded Hong Kong – old office furniture, store mannequins, rusty gates and broken electric fans – had been swept under the rug of the city’s superficially modern infrastructure, consigned to the care of drug addicts, scrap dealers and those on the margins. This vision culminates in the serial killer’s lair, a place of horror that is also a den of nostalgia and a metaphor for a fractured city.
Production company: Sun Entertainment Culture
International sales: Sun Entertainment Culture, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Wilson Yip, Paco Wong
Screenplay: Au Kin Yee, Shum Kwan Sin
Production design: Kenneth Mak
Editing: David Richardson
Cinematography: Cheng Siu Keung
Music: Kenji Kawai
Main cast: Gordon Lam, Liu Cya, Mason Lee, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi