Judge Joel Pearce thinks Benny Chan is gettin' too big for his britches.
Although Divergence won four Hong Kong film awards, it's sort of hard to tell how. It's certainly a step towards maturity for the cast and crew, but it has a long way to go to match what some other action film crews around the world deliver these days. Still, it has some awesome action set pieces, which make it worth a watch for serious action junkies.
Facts of the Case
Suen (Aaron Kwok, 2000 A.D.) is a loser of a cop. Having lost his edge when his girlfriend disappeared a number of years ago, he is now obsessed with a series of strange murders. The problem is, he's pushed out of the force when he screws up one too many times. But when he sees his missing girlfriend (Angelica Lee, The Eye), he has to keep up his investigation.
The focus of Suen's investigation is Mr. Yiu (Gallen Law), a mob boss whose son has been kidnapped. He's not happy about it, and he's gunning for revenge against one of his competitors, who he suspects of the kidnapping.
Meanwhile, Coke (Daniel Wu, Naked Weapon) is an impulsive, rebellious hitman, who is meddling in affairs that he should probably stay out of. Eventually, his path crosses Suen's with disastrous results. Now, all three men's fates are intertwined.
Director Benny Chan has never landed himself in the upper echelon of Hong Kong action filmmaking. His Heroic Duo and Gen X Cops are ridiculous affairs, featuring flashy action combined with over-the-top drama. With Divergence, it's clear that Chan wants to grow up as a filmmaker He brings along several regular actors, who deliver more serious performances as well. Ultimately, though, the whole crew falls back into the easy, comfortable patterns of their previous collaborations. Divergence isn't necessarily a bad film, but it lacks the sophistication of, say, Johnny To's Exiled.
Certainly, a more complex story is part of this attempt at transformation. The film's three stories are held together by thin threads, designed to come together creatively at the end. This works well in theory, but in practice it comes with serious problems. Coke's story is an interesting one, though his relationship to the others is tenuous at best. His own conflict heads left when the rest of the film heads right, making the conclusion awkwardly placed. The true villain is only revealed at the end of the story, even though any viewer paying marginal attention will guess how things will play out much earlier than that. A great director is able to juggle a trio of stories, balancing them all for the audience. Chan tried, but didn't succeed.
The performances are also ambitious. Again, Daniel Wu delivers by far the best work here, his Coke a playful balance between impulsive and serious. He is self-consciously amoral, but we immediately get the sense that he's not really a bad guy. He's just chosen a job that forces him to do terrible things, and he has adjusted to that role. Aaron Kwok plays it straight as Suen, only occasionally pushing his character over the top. Although Divergence isn't the first film to explore cops' limited ability to accomplish good, Kwok's is a surprisingly sensitive and effective performance. He has matured greatly as an actor, but needs to keep working to keep things under control. Angelica Lee is also horribly underused here. She has proven several times that she can carry a film with sincerity and charisma, but she is merely eye candy in Divergence.
Fortunately, Chan makes up for any storytelling weaknesses with his phenomenal action sequences. A foot chase between Suen and Coke is one of the best action sequences I've seen in a long time, and sets itself apart from anything else I've ever seen. Chan has gotten better at managing shootouts as well, as the ones here are both chaotic and coherent. They are exhilarating without causing us to lose track of what's going on. Few Hollywood directors can boast action choreography that works this well. If Chan continues to mature as a storyteller, I think we will see some truly wonderful films from him in coming years.
Tartan's DVD is a mixed bag. Though progressive mastering of transfers is almost a given these days, this disc isn't progressive. It looks fantastic on a standard definition TV, though. On a higher quality display, the image is quite disappointing.
The sound, on the other hand, is excellent. The DTS track features extensive use of all channels, including some powerful but controlled bass usage. Tartan made a major screwup in the subtitles in the first run of these discs (they've since offered a replacement for those discs affected). The subtitles through most of the film are three to five seconds off, which makes conversations almost completely indecipherable. Combine that with some very fuzzy translation work, and watching Divergence takes more effort than it should. If it wasn't for the recall, I couldn't recommend the disc to anyone.
Tartan has included quite a few special features on this double-disc release, including a subtitled commentary track with Benny Chan. It's a lively, friendly track (with correctly timed subtitles). On the second disc we get a production featurette, delivering the usual blend of footage, interviews, and self-congratulations. We also get some trailers and footage from the gala premiere. It's not much more than we often see on Tartan's releases, so I'm not sure why we get a second disc.
Divergence shouldn't be so closely connected to Infernal Affairs. It's not as smart a film, and doesn't aspire to the same level of overall quality. It's a fun action flick, though, and an indication that the latest generation of Hong Kong action filmmakers do have something to offer. Maybe we're on the cusp of a revival of what used to be the premiere source of action entertainment in the world. Just make sure you get the version with corrected subtitles.
Tartan gets yet another warning to keep an eye on quality control, but Benny
Chan is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
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