Desire 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)