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Trough, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Sin City, Hong Kong"
4 stars

"The Trough" starts out looking like it's going to be a throwback to old-school Hong Kong triad films, what with its cops so far undercover they can't get out and elaborate shoot-outs and professional but ineffectual police, but not necessarily a great one. Plus, it's following that through an over-cool desaturated digital aesthetic, so it doesn't have the grit that made them sing. But here's the thing: Somewhere around the second over-the-top action sequence, it starts to get weird, and kind of delightfully so.

After a bizarre opening scene, the film drops the audience into the fictional city of Solo Park, so crime-ridden that the triads can't help but run into each other mid-crime. Undercover detective Yu Qiu (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) has infiltrated the gang of Cheng Yun (Michael Miu Kiu-wai) at the behest of Chief Inspector "Jim" Jing War-man (Hie Jong), leading the cops to a deal between Cheng and "Nine Long Fingers" (Lam Suet). Jim soon grasps that all the crime in the city is running through one mysterious Boss, and when Qiu is part of a crew sent to kidnap a non-verbal little girl (Kiera Wang Shi-ya), the begin to grasp that not only are a ton of cops on this Boss's payroll, but what's going on may have a purpose they can't imagine.

It's probably a bit unfair to say that The Trough starts out like just another triad movie - it does, after all, open with Qiu in Namibia, fighting a hyena with his bare hands (no, this doesn't go anywhere), and there is at least a little bit of self-awareness to a scene where Cheng Yun starts waxing philosophical about being a gangster who used to be a cop to a group including Qiu. That bit plays as a little heavy-handed at the time, but in retrospect seems a bit more winkingly self-referential. It probably becomes clear to the film's native audience that writer/director/star Nick Cheung is going for something heightened (I initially thought "Solo Park" was some specific district of Hong Kong I hadn't heard of before), but by the second time an action scene is a more clearly choreographed than usual, it clicks. The whole thing starts to feel like it's going for distillation rather than imitation, like a Sin City pushed a bit in the future and using HK imagery rather than American pulp for inspiration. It becomes genuinely fun at that point, like Cheung is making the movie he wants to see and is happy that someone gave him the money to go nuts.

Making one's Hong Kong action a little more over-the-top is no small feet, but Cheung and his action crew manage. The first big set-piece - a shoot-out in a laundromat - is a bit of a mixed bag in that it's got some terrific little moments but also some which are too frantic, and others where some unconvincing digital blood spatter takes away from the well-staged violence it's meant to punctuate. Soon after that, though, there's the terrific kidnapping scene where Qiu and a crew leader played by Yuen Wah find themselves under assault by a rival gang and cops both clean and dirty, which morphs into a fine car chase. These set Qiu up as a man alone against impossible odds, and Cheung grasps how to make them both larger-than-life and sufficiently grounded to feel some desperation. He cribs from the best - there's a slow-motion shot of multiple glass doors shattering between two shooters that feels like something out of a John Woo film - and he's pretty good about creating motion with the camera even while letting the audience see what's going on.

This is just his third film behind the camera compared to many in front, but he seems more commanding as a director; he never steps wrong as Qiu, really, but seldom builds Qiu into an iconic character worthy of his surroundings, at his best when playing off Keira Wang Shi-ya's little girl and in some late exchanges with Xu Jinglei as a blonde-wigged Japanese woman with nothing to lose. To be fair, something may be lost in translation - though shot in Cantonese, the version playing Boston is dubbed in Mandarin (hence the main character being referred to as "Qiu" rather than "Chau" as you may see in other reviews). He builds up a nice supporting cast around him, with a quality brace of gangsters including Lam Suet, Michael Miu, and Yuen Wah, He Jiong and Yu Nan strong enough as the cops handling Qiu to be worth a movie of their own, and Maggie Cheung as their superior who speaks way too much English to be trusted.

It doesn't always work; the occasionally weak effects work that can't be passed off as style and plotting that rings a little hollow at points hurt. The action is gleefully big and nuts though, and the movie as a whole tends to be just the right amount of insane.

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originally posted: 05/07/18 01:03:26
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  03-May-2018 (MA)

Directed by
  Nick Cheung

Written by
  Nick Cheung

  Nick Cheung
  Jong Hie
  Nan Yu
  Jinglei Xu
  Michael Mu
  Suet Lam
  Maggie Cheung

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