Movie Review: Caught In Time (除暴)

The Hong Kong film industry, which was already gasping for air thanks to increasingly restrictive laws across the border governing what can and cannot be shown there, was dealt a further blow on June 11 when the local government introduced newly amended guidelines for films that are shown here. Under the proposed changes to the Film Censorship Ordinance that will, without a doubt, be passed by the now opposition-free Legislative Council, the films will not be allowed public screenings if they are found to be “endorsing, supporting, promoting, glorifying or inciting” acts of subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces. For a number of years now, many local filmmakers have chosen to either wholeheartedly embrace their new reality or swallow their pride in order to get their films shown in China because, let’s face it, that market is huge and our market is tiny. This latest change will certainly put a nail in the coffin of what was once a thriving and much-admired industry. What makes the situation even sadder is the patriotic rubbish they are producing in the hopes of reaping a huge box office payday. That’s what we have here with CAUGHT IN TIME, the sophomore effort by Hong Kong director and co-writer Lau Ho-leung/劉浩良 (TWO THUMBS UP/衝鋒車).

Based on the real-life exploits of robber and serial killer Zhang Jun, CAUGHT IN TIME tells the story of a group of criminals known as the Eagle Gang who commit a number of brazen and deadly robberies in southern China in the early 1990s. The gang is led by Zhang Sun (Daniel Wu/吳彥祖, TOMB RAIDER; GEOSTORM), who has a knack for planning meticulous and intricate heists that get increasingly ruthless in their execution. Hot on his heels, though, is police detective Zhong Cheng (Wang Qianyuan/王千源, THE EIGHT HUNDRED; SHADOW), who is steadfast in his efforts to bring Zhang and his men to justice. Over the course of a number of years, the two adversaries play a cat-and-mouse game that culminates in a bathhouse showdown because of course it does.

Lau was no doubt influenced by Michael Mann’s 1995 film, HEAT, in making CAUGHT IN TIME (the Chinese title translates to “Getting rid of outlaws”) but Wu and Wang are no DeNiro and Pacino. While the first half of the film is fairly exciting as the group pulls off more elaborate robberies, the story seemingly grinds to a halt with the introduction of a young woman who contemplates jumping off a tower. Zhang, who likes to scope out his heists from up on high, hence the “eagle” reference, notices her and before you know it the pair is living together in a tiny “tong lau/唐樓” (walk-up apartment). Don’t ask what happened to all the money he earned from his robberies because I don’t know. At that point, Lau inexplicably switches from film stock to what looks like digital video, giving the film the appearance of something you might see on an episode of RTHK’s Police Report. The film’s pièce de resistance, however, comes at the story’s climax when the two men battle it out wearing only towels around their waists at the bathhouse where Zhang’s mother works. How those towels managed to stay on the actors even after they got soaking wet will go down as one of the greatest mysteries in cinematic history.

The film isn’t all bad though. Wu’s “WTFIT” mullet is truly a sight to behold and deserves its own billing in the credits. The film, however, loses big points when a closing title card informs viewers that thanks to increased public surveillance and strict gun laws, China is “one of the safest countries in the world”. Meow!

CAUGHT IN TIME was released in China last November where it led the box office for two weeks. It has since been released in other markets and the film has so far taken in an impressive US$80 million. A sequel featuring the same police cast has already been greenlit.

CAUGHT IN TIME opens today (June 24) here in Hong Kong. It is shameless propaganda that only patriots and hardcore China cinephiles will love.

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