Chinese Midnight Express (1997)

Directed by: Billy Tang
Written by: Lee Siu-Kei & Chau Ting
Producer: Li Kuo Hsing
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Ng Man Tat, Ben Lam, Ben Ng, Ng Chi-Hung, Lee Siu-Kei & Pinky Cheung

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Billy Tang continues to roll on in the aftermath of his acclaimed string of very much rightly Category III rated movies back in the first half of the 90s. Chinese Midnight Express sees him team up with a worldwide star in the form of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (In The Mood For Love), Stephen Chow comic sidekick but also award winning dramatic actor Ng Man Tat and further down the cast list, the old Cat III mate Ben Ng. Another driving force behind the film (and also Tang's prior one, Streets Of Fury) is veteran actor Lee Siu-Kei who co-wrote, acted and executive produced this prison drama.

Reporter Chin Ahn (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) reveals corruption within the police force and when the bribery doesn't work, the police set out to frame him. They plant drugs in his apartment and fearing his family will get hurt, Chin confesses to the crime. His sentence is 3 years in prison and within the prison walls, Chin Ahn is immediately subjected to all sorts of punishment as a newcomer. Meanwhile on the outside, his girlfriend Jess (Pinky Cheung) is now under the control of the cop Ching Yiu Joe (Ben Ng), the one who framed Chin...

You look at the career of Billy Tang and it's not like he has a plethora of great movies behind him. It was within the true crime genre of Cat III films that Tang made a name for himself both due to content and visually. The actual acclaim he deserves are for movies like Run And Kill but it's important to note that while Tang has maintained a position in the industry, his peak has already been. A common quality trait for his work after the Cat III boom is decent and ordinary which isn't a huge critique but Billy does not seem like a filmmaker who can elevate himself anymore, which is a shame. Chinese Midnight Express stands as one effort that doesn't raise any eyebrows but kills off time in an efficient manner. Much of it is due to an always watchable Tony Leung, that's for sure.

Breaking it down, there's much seriousness on display which is always admirable seeing as Hong Kong cinema rarely trust audiences or itself enough to dedicate one movie to one mood. Lee Siu-Kei and Chau Ting's screenplay portrays the 1960s setting way too simplistic and over the top though. Evil is at its most supreme within the police- and prison system and as a serious dramatic effort looking to resonate with its points about righteousness, it's just too much. Fact is, it rings true of many Hong Kong films tackling of the subject matter and it's either laziness or lack of polished writing touches that prevent many efforts to be taken seriously. You look at Ben Ng's corrupt cop and it's definitely just an overblown movie type, not a character that should add on to a horror that the police get away with as much as they do. Tang manages to add a little actual horror of his own as Chin Ahn's beliefs of righteousness are pouring taken away but again, it may be due to lack of thought out script that prevents Tang to make a serious mark, not Tang's handling in itself. Maybe...

Chinese Midnight Express engages despite, albeit in a minor way. Tang brings an assured direction to the piece, again working with cinematographer Tony Mau. The hazy look of some of the outdoor prison scenes is an arthouse choice that one can recognize but also one that doesn't really work. Most of the time though, Mau does focus on making the film look solid and brings decent atmosphere to the more harrowing scenes in the prison. Furthermore, Tang clearly churns a bit more out of the script character-wise but it's clear that Lee Siu-Kei and Chau Ting have provided lackluster basics. Much of what we see is familiar genre stuff. You have the evil prison guard, gang rape in the showers (or rather an attempt), triad bosses punishing the new arrivals and as I said, Tang sees opportunities to get a little bit more humanity out of some of these but these are still cardboard cutouts from the cliché assembly line of prison characters. Even Ng Man Tat's goofy guide for Chin Ahn never gets any depth other than the basic one such as the requisite moment when he explains how he end up in prison. I'll tell you, Chinese Midnight Express doesn't pose any threat to Prison On Fire although that had both Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung (Kar-Fai that is). Tang "only" has Leung Chiu-Wai, a fact that does help immensely.

Leung also provides expository voice over which I would've liked to see removed as it might've elevated this ordinary work into something unexpectedly subtle. Although it is clear Leung is directed with the narration in mind. Despite, he puts on a fine show. Leung's greatest tool has always been his eyes and that rarely gets old. As written, Chin Ahn is treated very simple, just like most circumstances leading up to the imprisonment, but Leung makes the most of Chin Ahn's inner turmoil about losing to this world. There's always something going on in those eyes in a very real way so this is one achievement Billy Tang also can be proud of, having directed an A-list actor well. Elvis Tsui, Vincent Wan, Law Kar-Ying, Lee Lik-Chi also appear.

Chinese Midnight Express surely reeks of assembly line, quickly made genre fodder and while I don't mind seeing Billy Tang getting work (along with DOP Tony Mau and actor Ben Ng), I also would like to see more polished material being prepared for them. The portrayal of this corrupt world makes the entire work halt at the decent level but with a fine performance by Tony Leung, Chinese Midnight Express engages a little bit more over that set grade.

The DVD:

Mei Ah presents the film in a 1.68:1 aspect ratio approximately. Transfer look generally fine with strong colours and blacks. At times, contrast registers a bit high, grain appears and light print damage turn up.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks occupy all channels but remains fairly centered despite. Dialogue is clear but does seem slightly off in the mix as dialogue doesn't feel properly centered. A Mandarin 2.0 track is also included.

The English subtitles contain a few errors but are very much serviceable otherwise. A single set of Chinese subtitles are also included. There are no extras.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson