When it comes to name recognition in the U.S., Hong Kong director Tsui Hark falls far behind John Woo or Ang Lee. Yet Woo and Lee might not have achieved their American crossover success without him: Tsui revived Woo's flagging career by producing A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989), while his 1983 fantasy Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain was one of the biggest influences on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
With his 1979 debut, The Butterfly Murders, Tsui Hark helped launch the Hong Kong cinema's new wave, but his stock fell precipitously during the past five years as he tried unsuccessfully to find a place in Hollywood. His onetime protégé Woo has become an A-list studio director, even if coming to the U.S. drained his work of most of its personality (with the exception of Face/Off). Tsui's third and last Hollywood effort, Knock Off, was no Mission: Impossible 2 or Broken Arrow. An awful film on many levels, it was also a surprisingly experimental one, doubtless baffling Jean-Claude Van Damme fans who wondered why a scene would be shot from the point of view of a tennis shoe. Faced with an abysmal script and actors who redefined the word stiff, Tsui compensated by staging an exercise in pure visual style, making his boredom with the actual story readily apparent. As a result, Knock Off has found a surprising number of defenders, including those at the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma.
Even in Tsui's best films, the images tend to overpower both the story and the characters. Fortunately, he's capable of staging masterful set pieces, using canted angles and blitzkrieg editing without making a mishmash. (One fight scene in Once Upon a Time in China employs almost 300 camera setups without repeating a single angle.) After his third film, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, was initially banned by Hong Kong censors and then released only in a heavily edited version, Tsui abandoned the arty formalism and overt political anger of his early work, turning to frankly commercial projects. But he has rarely succeeded at selling out, even if one senses that he'd like to: His adventurous style and implicit politics have stuck.
Drawing more from Chinese literature than any other major Hong Kong filmmaker of his generation, Tsui expresses a sensibility that critic Stephen Teo once dubbed "nationalism on speed," best exemplified by the Once Upon a Time in China series. His 1995 wu xia masterpiece The Blade revises traditional tales of honor and vengeance to describe a world of Boschian cruelty, one whose macho exploits are witnessed and narrated by a woman. In these films, style and substance come together to dazzling effect. Alas, this isn't quite the case with Tsui's latest effort, Time and Tide.
The opening scenes of Time and Tide jam together pinball, vomit, lesbian cops, and a voiceover about God. At first Tsui seems to be taking Wong Kar-wai as his model, especially when he combines narration with stylized shots of Hong Kong street life. But once the plot kicks in, Time and Tide becomes a far more conventional action film. The narrator, Tyler (Nicholas Tse), is a 21-year-old who dreams of escaping Hong Kong and running off to a South American Eden. Instead, a one-night stand with undercover cop Jo (Cathy Chui) leads to her pregnancy, and a financial crisis for him. In response, he takes a job as a bodyguard for an agency headed by the sleazy Uncle Ji (Anthony Wong), who's not above terrorizing people or having his guards participate in torture and assault. At a toy store, Tyler meets Jack (Wu Bai), whose unpleasant experience as a mercenary in South America parallels his own. The two men become friends, but their relationship runs into trouble when Jack's old crew heads to Hong Kong, planning to kill a gang leader who has hired Ji for protection.
Frankly, the plot of Time and Tide is far more coherent in the press kit than it is onscreen, where it becomes the pretext for endless fights and explosions. In fact, the story pretty much stops making sense for a 30-minute stretch in the final half. The movie has two moods: deceptive calm, followed by relentless forward momentum. Where the action is graceful in Tsui's Once Upon a Time in China and nightmarish in The Blade, here it's jagged and insanely fast. Tsui piles whip pans upon split-second cuts, and throws on deafening sound effects for good measure. If you're looking for a caffeine substitute, this portion of the film may serve you well.
As for larger significance, Time and Tide may be Tsui's belated attempt to catch up with Woo's Hard-Boiled, even down to its repeated imagery of innocents in danger. (The climax takes place behind the scenes at a pop concert packed with 10,000 teenagers.) Tsui and Woo had a falling out in the late Eighties over Tsui's hands-on control of Woo's productions, so one wonders if it's any coincidence that Tsui's return to Hong Kong dwells so much on double crosses. For that matter, Jack's disenchantment with his experience overseas may be a reflection on Tsui's own stint in Hollywood. (The film even seems to parody some of Woo's pet images: two men with guns to each other's heads; flapping pigeons.) Unfortunately, it feels as though Tsui is trying to compete with Woo by one-upping his excess--a strategy doomed to failure.
And yet the sheer eccentricity of Time and Tide saves it from being just another generic action film. Driving a woman to the airport, Tyler gratuitously throws his car into a spin--a nice setup for a scene in which his passenger vomits directly into the lens. Tsui sprinkles similarly bizarre moments throughout the film, as if to pay off everyone who appreciated them in Knock Off. Yet there isn't much behind such thrills. On the few occasions when it strives for something more, the film falls flat. The subplot between Jack and his pregnant wife Hui (Candy Lo) carries less emotional weight than the encounter between Jack and Tyler at the gun store, perhaps because it affords fewer opportunities for bad-ass posturing. (Hui does come close when she simultaneously gives birth and participates in a shootout.)
Time and Tide may be most effective when it stops trying to balance the demands of narrative and action. (Following an hourlong bloodbath with a trite voiceover about God, childbirth, and hope was a particularly misguided decision.) Overall, the results are idiosyncratic and entertaining, but Tsui is obviously capable of much more. As it stands, the director seems to be returning to his prolific ways, having already completed Legend of Zu (slated for release by Miramax later this year) and Black Mask 2. Perhaps a genuine comeback for Tsui is just around the corner.