Hong Kong/China/Taiwan, 2013, colour, 2.35:1, 92 mins.
Director: Bi Guozhi 毕国智 [Kenneth Bi].
Futuristic thriller fails to generate any tension or, worse, believability.
A metropolis in East Asia, sometime in the future. Ma Ke (Wu Yanzu), an insurance broker at EXR Insurance Group, is hunted down on the street one night and interrogated in a warehouse by gangster Devil (Dai Liren), who claims Ma Ke stole some money from his gang. To frighten him, Devil tells the story of how he once threatened a small grocery shop owner (He Huachao) to pay up protection money by cutting off his wife’s finger. Ma Ke insists he’s just an insurance salesman. When Devil’s longtime boss, Tai (Ren Dahua), arrives, he relates his back story. Devoted to his widowed mother, Ma Zhenli (Hui Yinghong), who was out of her mind in a sanatorium, Ma Ke had eventually saved enough money to put her in a luxury retirement home. One day at the office, where he was still struggling to best the sales record of his girlfriend Mimi (An Yixuan), he had stumbled across a file that had supposedly gone missing and was involved in a claim by an elderly sick man, Wu. Under pressure from his superiors (Wang Xinping, Sun Jiajun), who promised him a promotion, Ma Ke had subsequently lied in court. Soon afterwards he’d found the account set up for his mother had been emptied and a transcript of the conversation with his superiors had been delivered to him by an unknown person. The same person had then called him and given him 10 minutes to retrieve a copy of the document that was then unknowingly being delivered by Mimi to Wu’s defence lawyer (Fang Ping). Ma Ke had found himself on a long odyssey, instructed by phone by the mystery caller, which had involved him robbing a restaurant’s diners; collecting a bag full of money from a bank where his onetime high-school sweetheart Jiexi (Yao Chen) worked; joining up with another man, San Mao (Shao Bing), who was also being blackmailed by the caller; and then teaming up with a private detective, Muwen (Feng Jiayi), to finally discover the mystery caller’s identity.
Uneven writer-director Bi Guozhi 毕国智 [Kenneth Bi] – the son of Hong Kong acting legends Ling Bo 凌波 and Jin Han 金汉 – falls from a great height with his fifth and most ambitious movie, the futuristic thriller Control 控制. Previously known for more modest productions like the Singapore-set Rice Rhapsody 海南鸡饭 (2004, with Zhang Aijia 张艾嘉 [Sylvia Chang]) and the more assured, Taiwan-set The Drummer 战•鼓 (2007, which cleverly steered Fang Zuming 房祖名 [Jaycee Chan] through his first serious dramatic performance), Bi shoots here for a big-budget, noir-ish mystery, in an unnamed East Asian metropolis, where a humble, mother-loving insurance salesman is blackmailed into a merry dance involving gangsters and a stash of money by a mystery phone voice. Kitted out (mostly in the early stages) with okay if derivative visual effects, and loaded with Greater China star names, it singularly fails to generate any tension, let alone sympathy for its lead character, woodenly played here by Wu Yanzu 吴彦祖 [Daniel Wu].
Bi’s script, based on an English screenplay Remote Control by Jack Messitt, a longtime American camera operator/d.p.-turned-director (Midnight Movie, 2008), essentially hangs on a Big Twist near the end that invalidates everything the viewer has sat through so far. Though theoretically clever, the twist just ends up making the viewer feel cheated, (a) because it’s totally unbelievable in retrospect and (b) because the journey to that point has been an increasingly pointless one. The flashback structure, in which Wu’s insurance salesman tells his story to some gangsters who claim he’s stolen their money, is anti-dramatic, and not helped by Taiwan’s Dai Liren 戴立忍 [Leon Dai] and Hong Kong’s Ren Dahua 任达华 [Simon Yam] phoning in performances as nutty low-lives. A gradual linear structure could have been more amospheric, but that still wouldn’t have surmounted the problem of Wu’s emotionless playing and the faintly ridiculous series of hoops through which he’s instructed to jump.
A fine actress in the right vehicles, Mainland light comedienne Yao Chen (Love in Cosmo 摇摆de婚约,2010; Caught in the Web 搜索, 2012) has little to do despite being second-billed, and looks throughout as if she’s regretted signing on. Her male compatriots Shao Bing 邵兵, Feng Jiayi 冯嘉怡 and Hao Bojie 郝柏杰 try to inject some life into the drama as fellow victims of the mystery phone-caller, while Hong Kong veteran Hui Yinghong 惠英红 [Kara Hui], as the mother of Wu’s salesman, adds another loony character to her recent filmography. Members of Hong Kong hip-hop group 24Herbs 廿四味 are scattered through the supporting cast of low-lives, and Taiwan actress-singer An Yixuan 安以轩 (Karate Girls 空手道少女组, 2003; the young reporter in If You Are the One II 非诚勿扰II, 2010) shows up briefly as an office colleague.
German-born, US-based d.p. Roman Jakobi, in only his second feature after the comedy The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down (2006), conjures up some suitably grey, noir-ish images inbetween more standard daytime stuff, but gives the film no thoroughgoing visual signature. That seems, however, to be more Bi’s fault than Jakobi’s, as Control lacks its own titular quality that could have grabbed the viewer’s attention. Production and costume design is equally erratic, and occasional use of split screen ditto.
Most importantly, after its scifi-ish intro, the movie makes no case for being set in the future and most of the time doesn’t even look as if it is. Following the wobbly duo Taichi Zero 太极1 从零开始 (2012) and Taichi Hero 太极2 英雄崛起 (2012), also produced with China’s Huayi Brothers Media, Wu and fellow actor Feng Delun 冯德伦 [Stephen Fung] have still to prove that their company Diversion Pictures is a cross-border player.
Presented by Sil-Metropole Organisation (HK), Huayi Brothers Media (CN), kbro Media (TW), Celestial Pictures (HK), Media Asia Film Production (HK), Le Vision Pictures (Beijing) (CN). Produced by Diversion Pictures (HK).
Script: Bi Guozhi [Kenneth Bi]. Original script: Jack Messitt. Photography: Roman Jakobi. Editing: Zhang Jiahui [Cheung Ka-fai], Bi Guozhi [Kenneth Bi]. Music: Dan the Automator, Andre Matthias. Art direction: Mo Shaozong [Alex Mok]. Costume design: Liu Tianlan. Styling: Liu Tianlan. Action: Qian Jiale. Visual effects: Fang Weiming.
Cast: Wu Yanzu (Ma Ke/Mark), Yao Chen (Jiexi/Jessica), Dai Liren [Leon Dai] (Devil), Shao Bing (San Mao/Sam), Feng Jiayi (Muwen/Moon, private detective), Hao Bojie (Jiefu/Jeff), Hui Yinghong [Kara Hui] (Ma Zhenli, Ma Ke’s mother), Peng Huai’an (Tony), Wang Xinping (Kang Ni/Connie), Sun Jiajun (Ma Ke’s boss), Fang Ping [Henry Fong] (Lu Yizhang/Louis Y. Lu, defence lawyer), An Yixuan (Mimi, Ma Ke’s office sales rival), Ren Dahua [Simon Yam] (Tai/Tiger), He Huachao (shop owner), Gu Guanzhong (Li Ke/Rick), Chen Zicong (AK47).
Release: China, 22 Nov 2013; Hong Kong, 16 Jan 2014; Taiwan, tba.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 23 Jan 2014.)