In South Korea a ruthless female assassin named Shu (Chien-lien-lu) makes a successful hit on a gangland boss that leaves the victim’s bodyguard Yichin (Han Sang-woo) furious for revenge. Back in Hong Kong Shu’s romantic yearnings surface for the first time in her life when she takes a shine to a neighborhood noodle vendor named Long (Lau Ching-wan). This street cook is a chatty, friendly presence who nicknames Shu ‘Beautiful Ghost’ for her habit of vanishing the moment his back’s turned. For her part Shu (as we later learn, a child refugee of war-ravaged Cambodia) has no idea how to express herself emotionally to Long but desperately wants to. As the possibility of walking away from her old life dawns on Shu, her nemesis Itchin arrives in Hong Kong and closes in for the kill.
Every so often these little films you’ve never heard of come out of nowhere and blow you away. Such is the case with the fabulous Beyond Hypothermia which takes its unusual title from a protagonist named Shu whose body temperature is several degrees lower than normal thus making her cool to the touch. Not so much living as existing under a severely spartan lifestyle in Hong Kong under the direction of her aunt and employer (Shirley Wong) whose rules to Shu are – You Have No Name, You Have No Photos, You Have No Past and Change Apartments Every Three Months – there’s plenty of violent action in Beyond Hypothermia. But the film’s heart and soul and what resonates over and above its admittedly thrilling revenge yarn is how this stone cold killer begins to come alive. An impromptu boat ride with Long down a set of stone steps in the middle of a torrential downpour (‘We used to do this as kids!’ says Long) that so delights Shu is a lovely moment, more Hong Kong indie than hard boiled genre movie. It’s scenes like this (as well as a sequence where Shu reveals her human side via a private photo session whose snaps she dutifully burns a short time later) which persuade us Shu is someone worth caring about. In common with the better Hong Kong genre movies Beyond Hypothermia has the courage of its convictions. Unlike an American movie it doesn’t back off from displaying its assassin’s ruthlessness which includes the cold-blooded shooting of a child. Such an instance would not only be a no-no in most countries but also – you would think – so alienate the viewer from the protagonist that the story would never recover. Remarkably, that isn’t the case here and I suspect because Shu is, at heart, an innocent. Not a psychopath or sadist, not someone who takes pleasure in murder but a person trained to kill who simply knows no other life. But beyond the kick-ass aspect of her character there’s a soulful quality to Chien’s performance and a curiosity in Shu which despite her outwardly ruthless nature embodies the potential for change.
The climax, a skilfully orchestrated demolition derby of cars and killers in which Shu and Long sure look like dead meat extends to the viewer a sliver of hope that, despite the bloody denouement, the pair might – just might – survive. It’s not much but given the circumstances it’s enough. A charismatic pair of leads apart, Beyond Hypothermia also has a small but strong supporting cast. Shirley Wong’s aunt is such an unusual figure in this sort of hard boiled story that she immediately captures our interest as both Shu’s employer and confidante and in one weirdly memorable scene – in which she tries to assuage Shu’s intimate desires – her lover. And Itchin (despite being saddled with a silly floppy hairstyle) is set up as Shu’s equal on every level. From the start one recognizes this guy as a formidable threat who will kill anyone and anything that gets in his way. Patrick Lau’s direction is spot on with well staged action sequences that are taut and brutal (there are plenty of graphic head shots here and Yichin’s tit-for-tat rampage once his beloved boss is slaughtered is ferocious stuff and gets even more so once his own fiancee is downed in crossfire) and he’s equally good with his actors in the quieter scenes. The budding attraction between Shu and Long is so charmingly played (including some nice black humour, as when Shu casually remarks to Long that ‘If you have a girlfriend, I’ll kill her’) that the burgeoning love affair between these two, rather than seeming an unwanted bolt on to the action, actually fuels the clash between professional duty and personal desire that’s at the heart of the story. Both leads prove highly engaging with Chien-lu’s stony visage the perfect foil for Ching-wan’s boyish enthusiasm. Cheung Yat-Man and Arthur Wong’s cinematography evokes a world of nocturnal, narrow alleyways, steam and neon lighting. It’s the perfect backdrop for a story about a female assassin who tries to walk away from the habits and training of a lifetime. Far, far better than Nikita (whose stylized action seemed to come from an entirely different movie to that of its lead’s performance) or indeed most of its imitators, this is terrific stuff at least on the same level as On the Run if not better. With that said I’m now going to go out and find everything I can starring the gorgeous Chien-lien-lu.