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by Jay Seaver

4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: "Punished" levels with the audience pretty quickly, opening with two scenes that don't say everything but make it clear that this movie is less about resolutions than the process of getting there. Later on, it spells out just what the English-language title is REALLY referring to. It can afford to tip its hand, though, because it's made by guys who know their crime and holds a couple of key bits in reserve.

The two flash-forwards that open the film are the aftermath of a kidnapping - Hong Kong property developer Wong Ho-Chin (Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and his driver/bodyguard Yao Kai-chor (Richie Ren) have caught up with the people who kidnapped Wong's daughter Daisy (Janice Man) and the results are ugly. From there we jump back, getting a look at the events that bring Wong and "Chor" to this point and following them afterward, and that's going to go some dark places: Chor was once a criminal himself before Wong took him in, and still has contacts he can call on. Wong, meanwhile, got to the top of the heap by being ruthless and uncompromising, and while he is far from the world's warmest parent, nobody attacks his family without paying a steep price.

Anthony Wong is a familiar face from a huge number of supporting roles - I've seen the hard-working actor in three films this year alone, and that's just what what has made it to theaters in the United States. He takes the lead here, and it's a terrifically forceful performance. Wong Ho-chin is a demanding man, the sort whose more benevolent emotions seem to have been burned away over the years, and there is a certain amount of this personality that suggests there's not much left to Ho-chin but residual ambition, but it's finely observed: There is a difference in the way a petty tyrant carries himself and the manner of a man who loves his daughter but can't think of any way to handle her self-destruction other than to be an autocrat. Wong dives into the worst case scenario of "father knows best"and emerges fascinatingly broken and confused on the other side, aware of his faults and struggling to understand why he commands such loyalty.

A large chunk of that loyalty comes from Richie Ren's Chor. Ren gets the bulk of the physical action - the running, punching, and shooting - but Ren makes his moments between those scenes quietly intriguing as well. He's a good man with a bad past, and it's interesting that he seldom goes the obvious route of unleashing a snarling or cold monster as he hunts down the kidnappers - rather, he's fierce and capable, but Ren shows us a man who comes to see himself as much more of a monster than the audience does.

The rest of the cast do a fine job as well, and what's impressive is that they by and large have story arc of their own, but these always tie back in to Wong's and Chor's main story; Maggie Chung, for instance, plays Wong's second wife as intriguingly intelligent and compassionate, not the ornament that this character would often be but still struggling with being considered an outsider. Candy Lo and Charlie Cho let us see the thoroughly unsympathetic sides of this family as the employees with the unenviable jobs of looking out for Daisy and trying to negotiate a tricky land deal. Janice Man makes sure we see the legitimate anger behind Daisy's bad behavior, and Lei Lam is thoroughly detestable as (likely) the worst of her kidnappers.

In addition to giving the characters interesting reactions to the aftermath of this crime, Fung Chi-keung's screenplay is an impressively tricky thriller, considering that it shows what could arguably be the film's climax in the first five minutes or so. The story never twists just for the sake of twisting, but it offers up interesting alternatives to this just being a random crime without spending too much time going down blind alleys.

Law Wing-cheong's direction is solid, too. he's worked as an assistant director and editor on a number of films by producer Jonnie To, and he makes sure to get the storytelling right before adding the flourishes. He's got a good enough handle on how crime stories work that he can grab the audience's attention with a car changing lanes, and uses the flashback structure in such a way as to make returning to those moments informative as opposed to just simple gotchas. He and the sound mixers make gunfights exciting but also loud, horrible things. The blindingly bright opening is very specifically not otherworldly, but uses those associations to tip the audience off that this movie is going to be as much about the characters' souls as the gritty crime tropes.

Those tropes do get a workout, make no mistake - "Punished" is a product of the Milkyway crime factory, and it never forgets that the paying customers are looking for ninety minutes of crime, vengeance, and shoot-outs. It's a factory that makes quality goods, though, with Law giving Anthony Wong a fine showcase even while sticking to the script.

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originally posted: 07/05/11 01:59:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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  DVD: 24-Jan-2012


  DVD: 24-Jan-2012

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