Unleashed (地下拳, Kwok Ka-Hei & Ambrose Kwok Yat-Choi, 2020)

Victory lies in letting go in Kwok Ka-Hei & Ambrose Kwok Yat-Choi’s macho boxing drama Unleashed (地下拳). A familiar tale of a gym under threat, a master vulnerable, and a young man indignant, Unleashed isn’t claiming to be original but eventually wanders in an unexpected direction with the entrance of a young aspiring actress who finds herself at the mercy of a predatory industry, taking refuge in the ring as she undergoes research for an upcoming role as a top assassin. 

Fok Kit (Sun Zhen-Feng), the hero, is a champ of the underground boxing circuit living with his master Tak-bo (Ken Lo Wai-Kwong) at a struggling gym. When their landlord, Mr. Ho (Mok Wai-Man), comes calling, Tak-bo assumes he’s putting up the rent but the reality is even worse. Ho wants to sell the property after receiving an offer too good refuse, but he is willing to sell it to Tak-bo first if he can come up with the money. While the bank agree to loan him almost enough, Tak-bo is running a little short when he’s approached by an old pupil, Lok (Sam Lee Chan-Sam), with an offer of his own. He wants Fok Kit to face off against his guy Surat (Zheng Zi-Ping), a Thai boxer with a fearsome reputation. Tak-bo is reluctant, fearing for Fok Kit’s safety after hearing rumours that Surat killed a man in the ring, while it also turns out that there may be bad blood between himself and Lok who has not long got out of prison after being convicted of drug smuggling. Meanwhile, Fok Kit has taken on a new pupil, Effy (Venus Wong Man-Yik), who wants to join the gym to learn all the boxing she needs to know to convince in her role as an assassin in an upcoming movie. 

Left with no other options, Tak-bo gives in and lets Fok Kit fight Surat, but it goes just as badly as it could possibly go and not only does he lose but is rendered paralysed. In true boxing movie fashion, Fok Kit shifts from petulant unwillingness to undergo a risky operation that might allow him to walk again, to a full recovery and the desire for a rematch, but his scars are as much psychological as physical leaving him afraid to fight, seeing Surat’s smug grin in every challenger that swings a punch. He freezes, knocked out by even the weakest of opponents. Effy, meanwhile, is on an emotional rollercoaster of her own. The sleazy director she’s working with takes against her when she rejects his inappropriate advances, having all her scenes reshot and even using them as an excuse to use physical violence against her under the pretext of movie making. He eventually gets his comeuppance when a video of his behaviour is leaked and goes viral, but his drunken act of revenge, from which Fok Kit is unable to protect her because of his unaddressed trauma, may yet cost Effy her big break in leaving her with a prominent facial scar. 

As Tak-bo keeps telling him, however, the most important tool in boxing is not physical strength but passion, just as a good actor needs heart and dedication. “Clench your first too tight you may lose everything” Tak-bo insists gently guiding Fok Kit towards the power of letting go while he himself admits he’s been holding on to an insecurity that kept him out of the ring. A fear of losing, rather than the convenient excuse of his leg injury, had him give up the fight only now deciding that he’s tired of hiding from failure. If they want to save the boxing gym, they’ll have to face their respective fears in the form of the irredeemable big bad that is Surat, a total vacuum of humanity and unstoppable killing machine. The greedy and soulless are eventually made to pay a heavy price for their betrayal of the craft, while those who have true passion eventually prosper. Never quite managing to marry its twin plot strands with Effy’s desire to fight back against a sexist and exploitative industry taking a backseat to Fok Kit’s manly drama as he struggles to regain his confidence by beating his trauma in the ring, Unleashed moves swiftly towards it wholly expected finale but consistently lands its blows even in its willing conventionality.


Unleashed streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © 2020 Orchid Tree Media

The Brink (狂獸, Jonathan Li, 2017)

the brink posterDesire makes beasts of us all. Longtime assistant director Jonathan Li makes his feature debut with a waterborne pulp noir which takes on more than a hint of gloomy sea shanty in its musings on sailors, their eternal brotherhoods, and ocean owned souls. The Brink (狂獸) mixes metaphysical drama with the more usual procedural tropes as a wounded, maverick cop chases his prey through hell and high water, refusing to acknowledge that his own “recklessness” is the single cause of the chaos he currently finds himself embroiled in.

The exhilarating opening sequence tracks around a ruined building before finding ruthless cop Sai Gau (Zhang Jin) engaged in a brutal fight with a suspect who later lands right on his police car after careering out of a top floor window. In addition to the death of the suspect, Sai Gau’s recklessness also causes the death of a fellow officer and sees him suspended from the police force after being charged with possible manslaughter. Six months later he’s absolved of guilt, released, and reinstated but clearly not forgiven by his colleagues and superiors who continue to regard him as a liability.

Hair dyed blond, Sai Gau sets about investigating a notorious gold smuggling operation operating under the cover of the local fishing trade. Meanwhile, smuggling underling Gui Cheng (Shawn Yue) has learned he’s about to be sidelined by his adopted father figure in favour of a feckless biological son and suspects his boss is about to have him offed. Gui Cheng preempts the situation by taking out the son’s guys and replacing them with his own before turning his would-be-assassin’s knife (or more accurately harpoon gun) back on him only for Sai Gau to arrive and ruin everything, unwittingly kicking off a series of unfortunate events for all concerned.

Li sets up Sai Gau and Gui Cheng as inverted mirrors of each other – hence Sai Gau’s ridiculous blond hair which sets him apart from the darkness of the long haired Gui Cheng. Where Sai Gau is all impulsive, instinctual action, Gui Cheng is calm and distance personified. Gui Cheng rarely speaks and when he does he’s concise and to the point, whereas Sai Gau, while not especially loquacious, is a classic wisecracker who speaks without thinking and is unafraid of the consequences of his words. Yet both men are also playing against themselves – Sai Gau has adopted the teenage daughter of the man he killed but refuses to allow himself to care for her, whereas the otherwise heartless Gui Cheng seems to have an intense yet platonic relationship with his female sidekick.

Twin betrayals set Sai Gau and Gui Cheng on an inevitable collision course leading towards a tussle over the gold which becomes more symbol than pure financial gain. Gui Cheng, once so calm and calculating, becomes fixated on harvesting what’s his, turning the buried treasure into his personal white whale while for Sai Gau it becomes the symbol of a long buried evil, a cursed charm designed to lure men to their doom by sending them into the centre of a storm it knows they cannot survive. Gui Cheng believes himself blessed by the goddess of the sea and that the gold is his for the taking, but it is ultimately the sea which claims him as he attempts to defy the elements to stake his claim on the cursed treasure which it has already swallowed. Sai Gau claims no particular spiritual affiliation but the gold, and its corrupting influence, reawakens his sense of morality as he becomes as convinced that the gold is evil as Gui Cheng is that it is his salvation.

The gold turns men into the “wild beasts” of the Chinese title though the English one seems to place them on the “brink” of losing themselves at any given time. Highly stylised, Li’s Hong Kong is one of neon lit darkness in which it is always raining and the air hangs heavy with despair and impossibility. The action scenes are impressively choreographed sequences of balletic beauty captured with Li’s gift for unusual composition and an urgent energy which acts as a harbinger for the coming storm. Pure pulp noir, The Brink has an almost Lynchian sense of lurking darkness creeping in from another, more mythical world the kind of which sailors sing about in their shanties and only talk about by candlelight.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)