Alan Mak made his name with the phenomenally successful Infernal Affairs (co-directing with Andrew Lau) which later blossomed into a trilogy – a pattern he repeated with the Overheard series, making time for a few standalones in between. 2019’s Integrity (廉政風雲 煙幕), released as gritty alternative to the saccharine and silly fare usually on offer for Lunar New Year, finds him in similar territory and is once again touted as the first in a projected trilogy this time revolving around the ICAC who have become a Hong Kong movie favourite as of late. Drawing inspiration from classic ‘70s thrillers and American New Cinema, Integrity has a few questions to ask about the nature of corruption and the limits of control.
The drama begins with ICAC officer King (Sean Lau Ching-wan) briefing star witness Jack Hui (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) on their upcoming court case. Shortly after Jack has handed over a USB stick containing new evidence, he slips his protective detail and disappears leaving King’s case with a giant hole in the middle, especially considering one of the two defendants has also skipped town. Given a seven day recess, King reluctantly allows his wife, fellow ICAC officer Shirley (Karena Lam), to travel to Sydney to chase Jack while pressing his available leads in the form of defendant two and the rest of the USB stick.
Eschewing action in favour of intricately plotted conspiracy, Mak keeps the tension high as he slowly reveals the ambiguities of the case, reminding us that no one is quite as innocent as we might assume. We find out the relationship between Jack and King (pregnant names indeed) may not have been as straightforward as we first assumed while we’re also made aware of the extremely lucrative trade in black market cigarettes and the backhanders to the customs bureau that make it possible. Then again we have to ask ourselves why it is a top accountant like Jack might suddenly decide to turn whistleblower when he’s been perfectly content with his complicity in corruption for the last 20 years.
King is intent on catching “The Puppet Master” by following their financial trail, convinced that taking down the middlemen in the tobacco smuggling scam will eventually flush them out. He thinks he holds all the cards but isn’t quite aware what game it is he’s playing. Desperate to catch his quarry, King is in danger of crossing the line as he convinces defendant two to tell all by (falsely) promising her immunity as a prosecution witness. She eventually spills the beans, but warns him that people will die – something that tragically comes to pass when the Puppet Master starts taking care of loose ends.
Obsessed as he is, King isn’t quite sure he cares who might get hurt in his quest for justice. Then again, King’s need to catch the bad guy, as his boss (Alex Fong) tries to point out as kindly as possible, is a kind of displacement activity designed to get his mojo back so he can patch things up with his put-upon wife. Despite talk of divorce, the pair are still wearing their wedding rings and have romantic photos as their smartphone wallpaper while they continue to bicker (somewhat) affectionately via text message. The awkward romantic subplot is most likely intended to set up a series motif though it seems wholly out of place with Mak’s more serious themes, especially when tipping into unwelcome clichés such as Shirley’s impromptu shopping trips paid for with King’s card when she gets fed up with his persistent sexism.
The central theme of King’s own fracturing “integrity” gets lost in the shuffle but is dealt a killer blow by the extremely unwise ‘90s flashback and its eventual ‘80s counterpart which undercut almost everything that’s gone before, creating a series of inconvenient plot holes in the process. Mak isn’t quite sure where he wants to go and presents us with a series of trick endings, the final of which is a step too far even if it perhaps plays into his themes of karmic justice and the costs of betrayal (not to mention making it 100% clear for the mainland censors’ board that crime never pays). Though managing to nail the the tense ‘70s conspiracy thriller vibe in its early stretches Integrity’s ridiculous third act plot twists ruin an otherwise promising tale of greed and suspicion while perhaps reinforcing the idea that no one can be trusted and all connections are, to a point at least, mercenary.
Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.
Original trailer (English subtitles)