Beyond Hypothermia (Patrick Leung, Hong Kong, 1996)

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.

Intruder (Tsang Kan-Cheung, Hong Kong, 1997)

Afer being impressed by Wu Chien-Lien’s performance as a female assassin in Beyond Hypothermia I thought I’d give her next film a try and I wasn’t disappointed. Intruder’s apparent failure at the HK box-office as well as the rumour that the local audience so identified the main characters ruthlessness with that of the actress playing her that it effectively put an end to Chien-Lien’s film career – at least as a leading lady – seems in retrospect very unfair indeed. Wu plays a mainland Chinese woman who in the first few minutes strangles a prostitute for her passport and then, having successfully tricked her way into Hong Kong territory, traps a taxi driver (Wayne Lai) in his own home and settles down to await the arrival of her sinister criminal husband. But things quickly get out of control when the taxi driver’s own mother turns up at the house along with the man’s child and Wu – taking orders from her husband over the phone – kills again and then decides the sweet little girl is a loose end who must also be dealt with. And speaking of loose ends, the prostitute Wu murdered at the start of the film turns out to have a husband in Hong Kong who’s determined to find out who it is who’s been travelling on his wife’s passport. When he eventually tracks Wu back to the driver’s home the stage is more than set for a right old bloodbath.

This is one intense, gruelling, atmospheric thriller with a strong sense of place and more than a splash of Grand Guignol horror. Wu Chien-Lien is frightening yet not unsympathetic as a remorseless killer doing it all for love in the form of a husband whose offscreen presence for most of the film leads one to suspect that the phone conversations between them might just be taking place entirely in her own head. In fact her husband does exist and when he finally arrives the reason for keeping Wayne Lai’s taxi driver alive all this time becomes horrifically clear. Both of them need passports to travel in Hong Kong but the husband doesn’t have any hands (fingerprints, y’see) because they’ve been chewed off by police dogs! He needs a new pair of hands, which means… Not lost on Hong Kong audiences of the time is the significance of Wu and her husband as mainland criminals who sneak into the territory and literally possess the body parts of an innocent Hongkie. With the handover to the Chinese just a few years away at the time this was released you don’t have to be any kind of genius to see Intruder as another populist expression of fear at what the territory’s loss of sovereignty would mean for its people (On The Run is another cracking example from this period).

As powerful as all this is Intruder has more going for it than horror kicks. The nightmare situation Wayne Lai’s taxi-driver finds himself in – literally gaffer-taped to a wheelchair and wrapped up like a mummy as he awaits a dreadful fate – leads him to reflect on how selfishly he’s behaved in abandoning his own daughter to the care of his mother. And as the long night wears on, the details of Lai’s pathetic life eke out (and in bitter contrast to the initial meeting between the two in which Wu posed as a needy prostitute to Lai’s braggart client), escape attempts are made and foiled and Chien-Lien shows unexpected sympathy to the little girl she’s abducted but finds herself unable to kill. Her husband of course has no such compunction and once he turns up the little girl ends up captured, buried and almost drowned before finally escaping by getting washed downriver in a raging torrent. It’s a nail-bitingly intense climax and on a technical level Intruder is extremely well done, especially its striking cinematography. Director Tsang Kan-Cheung really knows how to establish a sense of place. He’s very good at laying out the geography of Lai’s flat, in which the bulk of the action unfolds. On the strength of this it’s a shame he never directed again even though he’s forged a highly successful career as a screenwriter, Kung-Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer amongst them. As with Beyond Hypothermia, if you can find this one with the original Cantonese audio and without cuts, strongly recommended.