Lately, I’ve come across several articles wondering aloud if the Hong Kong film industry is losing steam. Putting out too many glitzy action pieces with too many frou-frou actors (Ekin Cheng, anyone?), Hong Kong is bloated and resting on the laurels of its past. That’s especially the case now that the country’s best and brightest have found acclaim elsewhere in the world (though it could easily be argued that the American films of John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li are pale imitations of their HK output). Anyway, I’m not about to write off the Hong Kong film industry yet, no matter how many films like The Duel they put out.
On the upside, other Asian countries have stepped in to fill the void. Korea has had a series of high profile films come out in recent years (Bichunmoo, Shiri, and Musa, to name a few) and Japan’s cult film industry has seen a huge internation resurgence with the output of Takashi Miike and films like The Ring series. And now, with Bangkok Dangerous, you can add Thailand to the list.
On the surface, everything about the movie seems like a patented HK rip-off, along with plenty of Tarantino-isms thrown in for good measure. While the origins of its style are quite obvious (just try imagining this film without John Woo’s The Killer), Bangkok Dangerous takes the tired “hitman with a change of heart” film and still comes out feeling fresh and novel.
Kong is the city’s best hitman. Mute since childhood, Kong dispatches his targets in silence and detachment. His only two friends are Joe, his roommate and the man who introduced him into the life, and Aom, Joe’s ex-girlfriend and the person who serves as his contact. While the film easily sets up Kong’s skill as a hitman, it also takes time to give him depth. For Kong, always picked on because of his disability, being a hitman is the one way for him to be strong, to forever strike back at those who hurt him. A chilling scene illustrates this; in order to become a better shooter, Kong pretends that he’s shooting those children that tormented him.
Like The Killer’s Jeffrey, Kong is a lonely young man. That is, until he meets Fon, a girl who works in the local drugstore. The two soon develop into a cute couple, though Fon finds it difficult to communicate with the young man. And for awhile, Kong experiences what might be called love. However, it soon becomes impossible for him to hide his other life. Aom has been resisting the advances of a young tough, resulting in her being raped. Joe promises revenge, and soon, his tactics start increasing pressure in the underworld. And then there’s that old staple of hitman flicks, the betrayal, involving the assassination of a powerful TV executive.
It’s a plot that’s been done time and again. However, Bangkok Dangerous’s additional development of Kong keeps it from being too cliched. He’s actually a very likable fellow, loyal to his friends and honestly enamored with Fon. However, his lifestyle won’t let him go so easily, something he naievely believes in his youth.
Just as the plot avoids cliché, so do the visuals. Employing both film and video, Bangkok Dangerous achieves a look that is truly edgy and stylish without being too obvious about it. Although you’ll hear names like Woo and Tarantino dropped, the camerawork and cinematography more readily recall the films of Wong Kar-Wai, especially his hitman flick, Fallen Angels.
As if to compensate for Kong’s muteness, the film almost goes overboard in the visual department. The Pang Brothers employ countless cinematic tricks; multiple film speeds and stocks (for example, the family film look of Kong’s painful childhood memories), rapid editing (especially during a kickboxing scene that plays like something out of Snatch), handheld camera work, and even bits of CGI here and there. And then there’s the film’s use of color. But rather than bring any light into the film, the grimy purples and greens and the lurid blues only serve to bring out the seediness of Kong’s world.
While it may seem to be style just for style’s sake, it does also make those back alleys and underground hideouts beautiful in a dirty sort of way, pulsing with a nervous energy that feels almost palpable. At worst, it’s obvious homage, but more often than not, Bangkok Dangerous takes its obvious influences and connections and turns them into something completely original and exhilarating. While movies like Full-Time Killer and The Mission may be getting all of the press for reviving the hitman genre, Bangkok Dangerous truly deserves some as well.