Early in this month, I watched South Korean thriller film “Cold Eyes”, and I was excited by its thrilling story about the secret surveillance police team and the professional criminals they chase after. While being a well-made genre film with several fabulous scenes to remember, it is also supported by a bunch of good performances from its terrific cast, and, at least in my opinion, it is one of the best South Korean films of this year.
Before watching the movie, I came to learn that the movie is in fact a remake of Hong Kong thriller film “Eye in the Sky”(2007), which I had not watched mainly because the movie was not widely introduced to the South Korean audiences(it has been released neither in theaters nor on DVD in South Korea yet although it was introduced at the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2007). I was naturally curious about the original version after immensely enjoying its remake version, so I managed to find and then watch the former at last night, and it turned out to be a little competent thriller film worthwhile to be recommended. It surely looks shabby as a low-budget film compared to its slick South Korean cousin, but it has its own strong points as a tight, economical thriller piece, and it is as distinctive in many aspects as its remake version is.
The plot is simple. Constable Ho(Kate Tsui), a young rookie police officer, manages to pass a field test by Sergeant Wong(Simon Yam) during the opening sequence in the downtown area of Hong Kong, and she starts to work at Sergeant Wong’s secret police department not long after the big robbery incident at a nearby jewelry shop is reported. The robbery was planned by Chan(Tony Leung), a reticent criminal mastermind who always makes it sure that his plan is executed as planned while monitoring the situation and his men from above. Like Ho and Wong, he looks ordinary and unremarkable on the surface, and we are not surprised to see that he can quietly walk out of the crime scene without any difficulty once the job is done and then the police has arrived.
Through various clues acquired during their clandestine investigation process, Wong and others at the department pursue Chan and his accomplices step by step. At some shady office hidden from the public, the people at the department thoroughly check the video clips from many surveillance cameras placed around the city, and, once a possible target is spotted, it is the job of Sergeant Wong’s team to track down and follow the target while not noticed by anyone. Even if someone needs to be helped or rescued near them, they should not do anything except keeping focusing on their mission as the eyes of the police seeing everything and remembering everything.
The movie is directed and co-written by Yau Nai Hoi, who has written the screenplays for the Hong Kong crime noir films directed by the producer Johnnie To(their recent collaborations were “Drug War”(2012) and “Blind Detective”(2013)). The movie feels less polished compared to Johnnie To’s stylish works, but it is filled with gritty ambiance through the shabby urban sights of Hong Kong, and Yau Nai Hoi gives us good suspense scenes with subtle tension as its police characters approach closer to their target criminals. When one target is located, it is Ho’s job to find where he exactly lives in one cheap apartment building, and that certainly requires both patience and caution to her while not exposing anything to her target standing right next to her in a small space.
The characters are mostly broad and simple, but, while observing them in work, we come to see both cops and criminals as the tired people struggling in their hard world. Although he can be very harsh if necessary, Chan can be cordial and generous to his men who are bonded together as low-life criminals facing their waning days. Their works become more scarce and difficult nowadays, and Chan later asks his broker, who is also his incarcerated master’s wife, for a little more payment for him and his men during their meeting. She understands his difficulty with sympathy, but both know the rules in their business, and they quietly accept them.
Meanwhile, Wong and Ho and their colleagues are only a few steps behind Chan’s criminal clan, and they intuitively sense Chan’s presence although he is not detected in their surveillance network. While Chan is clever enough to evade them, Wong and Ho are sharp enough to follow him, and there is a suspenseful moment when Ho must remain calm and casual for not blowing her cover in front of her target who happens to recognize her by coincidence.
The performances in the film are solid. Simon Yam and Tony Leung are the most recognizable actors among the cast, but both actors mingle naturally with their co-actors on the screen without drawing our attention. Yam brings some humor to his character through his character’s habit of telling funny story to his colleagues, and Leung gives us a glimpse of his character’s soft side behind the stoic appearance during the brief scene where Chan encounters a man who shared lots of past with him. Kate Tsui is plucky as required as a rookie cop character, and she and Maggie Siu, who plays Wong’s feisty boss, imbue a strong female touch to the story mainly filled with male characters.
There are many scenes in the film which are transferred to its remake version, and they are consequently compared to their counterparts in the remake version in my mind. While “Eye in the Sky” is plain and gritty with its earnest appeal, “Cold Eyes” is saucy and polished as it puts more characterization and skills on the original story modified with small and big changes. I think I like “Cold Eyes” more, but I also think you should check out “Eye in the Sky” along with “Cold Eyes”, for appreciating how well one good movie can be reconfigured into the other good film.