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.

Big Bullet (Benny Chan, Hong Kong, 1996)

Courageous but hot-tempered officer Bill Chu (Lau Ching-wan) finds himself demoted after assaulting a superior officer responsible for a raid gone disastrously wrong. After being reassigned as a patrol officer with the Emergency Unit Bill’s old boss is killed in a restaurant shootout and Bill’s determination to catch the men responsible drags his inexperienced EU comrades into a full on shoot out with the gang when they snatch $9 million from Interpol headquarters and hatch a plan to smuggle the haul out of the country on a British military transport plane.

If Fox Hunter was a naff title for a way above average genre entry then Big Bullet deserves some sort of award for sheer laziness. I mean, how long did they spend thinking that one up? Or maybe there’s some sort of secret formula at work here. As in the better the movie the lamer the title. Come to think of it that must be it since Big Bullet is a gem of 90’s Hong Kong action cinema. I knew I was going to like it when the first person to show up onscreen as a brave cop named Bill Chu who doesn’t suffer fools gladly was Milky Way regular Lau Ching-wan. And then when Francis Ng turned up as Lau’s boss I thought ‘Alright! Now all we need is a great villain’ and lo and behold there was the great Anthony Wong playing a long-haired, ruthless and seemingly perpetually self-amused killer named Bird whose own survival depends upon him retrieving nine million dollars from the security of an Interpol bank vault that he’d failed to steal previously. For this he needs the help of an ex-cop turned banking executive, or more precisely said ex-cop’s hand, a brutal sequence which culminates in an absolutely barnstorming shootout on the streets of Hong Kong that for sheer visceral intensity rivals the urban shootout in Heat or pretty much any other movie you can think of.

It’s a great first act action setpiece but the film is up and running right from the off as Lau’s cop, Sergeant Bill Chu, is demoted to street patrol after punching out a slimy superior officer. Lau, an actor who specializes in offbeat characters is here cast as more of a straight arrow action hero but he still manages to find quirks in the character, delivers superbly and gives his supercop a nice line in self-deprecating humour. The script by Benny Chan, Susan Chan and Joe Ma (the latter of whom co-wrote the terrific A War Named Desire) gives us peeks into the private lives of Chu’s new team during their downtime in scenes both comic and touching as well as his friction with a by-the-book cop played by Jordan Chan, who has his own problems with a brother who used to be in the force but has since left and turned criminal. The resolution of this sub-plot which is virtually the last scene of the film is a lovely heartwarming moment. The plot twist it reveals may seem obvious in retrospect but at the time it took me completely by surprise. And Theresa Lee as the patrol’s sole female member and computer expert (‘I’ve just deleted my overseas call charges!’ she winningly tells Bill after hacking into Interpol’s computers) is a delight. By the time Wong and his men make their move the combination of humour and character development has made its mark; the camaraderie between them is rock solid, we really like these people, don’t want to see them hurt and that elevates the movie significantly. The climax – an exciting nocturnal fight both inside and on top of a British military cargo plane as it trundles down a runway – is a skillful combination of action and humour. Big Bullet works on every single level. It doesn’t break any new ground but it is so confidently done that it makes all the usual cliches of the genre seem fresh again.