A cyber security expert is forced on the run after being framed for money laundering while trying to engineer a brighter future for his seriously ill little girl in Wong Hing-fan’s high octane techno thriller, Cyber Heist (斷網). In true B-movie fashion, the film’s visualisation of the digital world has a distinctly retro aesthetic while the plot may sometimes lack internal consistency, but what the film does have is a series of tense action sequences many featuring the hero desperately running around carrying the super secret information in a tiny robot doll.
Chun (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) is cyber security expert working for a top Hong Kong firm which provides technical services for local banks. The problem is that they keep getting hacked as criminal gangs take down banking services to run a complex money laundering operation. As it turns out, Chun was once a cyber criminal who spent time in prison for selling viruses on the dark web but has since reformed after becoming a father. His little girl, Bowie, is suffering from a serious heart condition and is currently on the transplant list but dreams of one day becoming an astronaut.
It’s Bowie who provides the moral centre of the film in her constant refrain of “What are you doing, Daddy?” which Chun seems to hear every time he’s thinking of doing something nefarious. Clearly possessed of immense power in his technical knowhow Chun battles with himself as to how to use it responsibily. When Bowie is turned down for a place at an elite school, he considers simply hacking into their database and changing her records but thinks better of it before getting her a place the old fashioned way, by agreeing to make a sizeable “donation”. It doesn’t really seem like that’s a lot better in the grand scheme of things but does perhaps hint at the low level of corruption that has already seeped into everyday life. In any case, it’s Chun’s desperation for the money after being turned down for a loan by his boss, Chan (Gordon Lam Ka-tung ), that makes him vulnerable to intrigue when previous patsy Frankie (Kenny Wong Tak-bun) is killed in a mysterious “accident” after laundering more money than he was supposed to and then depositing the excess in his regular bank account.
Chun agrees to help the authorities in the form of cyber crimes inspector Suen Ban (Simon Yam Tat-wah) but soon finds himself on the run when ultra corrupt boss Chan kidnaps his daughter. Chan is also trying to protect his younger brother who was left with brain damage after being beaten by thugs working for shady gangster Mr Pong (Andy Kwong Ting-Wo) and is clearly not above reprehensible behaviour. It has to be said that the film’s conception of the way online infrastructure works has a distinctly B-movie quality. At one point, Chun’s experimental AI virus ends up accidentally destroying the entirety of the internet yet nothing really happens except for people becoming very confused by their now useless phones, and then Chun is somehow able to make everything OK again by simply rebooting it.
Likewise, the film’s visualisation of the cyber world is heavily influenced by mid-90s William Gibson as a kind of virtual reality metaverse where hackers walk around in cyberspace while wearing creepy clear plastic masks. The space occupied by the money launderers is verdant and green, a beautiful cyber forest, while that of the dark web is pure grunge, a space of urban decay filled with dank and half finished buildings and peopled by edgy guys in hoodies wearing hacker chic. Even so, there’s a kind of charm in the retro aesthetics of ‘90s futurism along with the concurrent suggestion that the offline world is inescapably duplicitous and true techno guys are the only ones to be trusted.
In any case, the money laundering scam is a kind of MacGuffin as Chun becomes increasingly irate while squaring off against his opposite number, Chan, and trying to prove himself as a responsible husband and father by saving his little girl and catching the bad guy not to mention clearing his name by helping the police. An old-fashioned man on the run thriller, Wong’s breathless camerawork follows Chun all over Hong Kong as he fights for his life and family against those who value nothing more than money while desperately trying to live up to his daughter’s expectations of what a good man should be in a world that online or off is already far from fair.
Cyber Heist was released in UK cinemas courtesy of Magnum Films.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)