February 19, 2008

Flash Point (Yip, 2007)

The cinema of Hong Kong has always been defined primarily (at least in an international sense) in terms of its action films. From the martial arts films of the Shaw Brothers in the 60’s and 70’s (Come Drink With Me, Five Deadly Venoms), to the pioneering work of Jackie Chan (Police Story) and John Woo (Hard Boiled) in the 80’s and 90’s (to name but a few, the list could go on and on…), Hong Kong has often been at the vanguard of action cinema, constantly innovating and redefining the look and feel of the genre and just as constantly being imitated.

With Flash Point, director Wilson Yip and star/fight choreographer Donnie Yen once again attempt to push the action genre to more extreme heights, though the results are quite mixed. From a narrative standpoint, the film is rather perfunctory. Taking place in 1996, just before the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, it deals with the efforts of a police operation, headed by Yen’s Inspector Ma, to take down a Vietnamese crime family. All of the requisite beats one would expect from such a plot are present. And though Yip broaches the interesting theme of “returning home” – many characters comment on their migrant status – it isn’t developed beyond a superficial level. Anyone even remotely acquainted with Hong Kong policiers will find themselves on familiar ground.

Given this, it would be quite understandable to dismiss Yip and Yen’s film as yet another formulaic entry from a stagnating contemporary Hong Kong film industry, though such an assessment wouldn’t be completely fair. Yes, the plot is hackneyed, the acting is exaggerated, and the dialogue is mechanical and sometimes nonsensical (though I assume something was lost in translation), but to judge this film predominantly on these elements would be to miss the point almost entirely. For though it grinds to a halt in its quieter moments, Flash Point positively explodes during its louder ones, especially when Yen is in the spotlight.

At its core, Flash Point is an outlet for Donnie Yen’s continuing obsession with MMA (mixed martial arts), something he utilized to great effect in his first collaboration with Yip, Sha Po Lang. This particular approach (which blends styles as diverse as Muay Thai and submission grappling) would seem to be a direct reaction to the graceful bloodletting of Woo’s The Killer, or the wire-fu spectacles Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. The action feels organic, the fights gritty, brutal, and unpredictable. Every punch is felt. In the current homogeneous action film landscape, Yip and Yen have created something fierce and angry, something that feels like the logical next step.

There is far too much banality in Flash Point for it to be considered a complete success, yet for all of its shortcomings, it still succeeds as a pure adrenaline rush. This is the action film as performance art, pushed to an almost abstract level, where the emphasis is on the technical beauty of the action, regardless of plot and characterization, and pleasure is derived from the sounds of bones crunching, and above all else the athletic prowess on display.

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