Metade Fumaca (1999)

Written & directed by: Riley Yip
Producers: John Chong, Solon So & Claudie Chung
Eric Tsang, Nicholas Tse, Shu Qi, Jo Kuk, Michael Chan & Sandra Ng

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2000:
Best Screenplay (Riley Yip)
Best Actor (Eric Tsang)
Best Supporting Actress (Elaine Kam)
Best Cinematography (Peter Pau)
Best Art Direction (Wong Bing Yiu)
Best Costume & Make Up Design (Dora Ng)
Best Original Film Song: Oi hau yu sun (Life after love)
Music: Ng Kwok Sing
Lyrics: Lin Xi
Performed by: Nicholas Tse

In Portuguese Metade Fumaca means 'half smoked' and in this movie that is a reference to the cigarette Eric Tsang's character carries with him since one, for him, magical night 30 years ago.

Mountain Leopard (Eric Tsang from Gen-X Cops) is a triad who has spent the last 30 years of his life living in Brazil. He now returns to Hong Kong to kill his long time rival Nine Dragons (Michael Chan) who stole the woman Mountain Leopard was in love with. He enlists the help of small time hoodlum Smokey (Nicholas Tse from 2002) who more than willingly is ready to kill for money. Smokey also knows the present Hong Kong which Mountain Leopard is not really familiar with and the two slowly begin the search for Nine Dragons. During this time they develop an almost father-son like relationship but along the way the real truth about Mountain Leopard is revealed....

Riley Yip's drama really shines from the beginning frame both visually and sound wise. The starting scenes show Mountain Leopard leaving Brazil and the score of course has a Brazilian flavour to it. The camera catches some beautiful location work which I guess is in Macau where the architecture can create the illusion of being in Brazil. Already a few minutes in, Metade Fumaca felt different and it sure didn't look like any Hong Kong film I've seen recently. This was just the beginning of a magnificent tale of the beauty of memories.

The direction Riley chooses here can probably be compared to many directors but I kept thinking of the way Wilson Yip directs. The camera doesn't move more than it has to for this kind of story and I've said it before; let the actors and the settings push the story forward! All this has been captured beautifully by Peter Pau's excellent eye. You could heap loads and loads of well deserved praise over his cinematography work thanks to movies like Anna Magdalena and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and now Metade Fumaca. Many scenes take place out on the streets of Hong Kong and the screen looks like it's lit by the city itself. This means a very varied colour scheme but at the same time Peter manages to create an almost perfect natural light that I've rarely seen on film. If you see Peter Pau's or Arthur Wong's name in the credits of a movie, you will pretty much be guaranteed that it will look good at least.

The music by Lau Cho-Tak and Chiu Tsang-Hei really stands out since it features a lot of Brazilian flavoured tunes. At some points in the movie it even combines these elements with techno beats, which makes for an interesting experience. I have to say that I thought the score was overused in certain places and could've been lower in volume while still working with the scene.

The focus lies on the two characters of Mountain Leopard and Smokey and they, despite the age difference both share things in life. The screenplay by Riley Yip deliberately chooses to put the main plot second or rather delays it in order to flesh out the characters even more. It's a good choice since the lives of Mountain Leopard and Smokey are fascinating to watch and follow. We don't know how the plot is going to unfold around them but we're not anxious to get to the next step in the story. We're willing to invest a lot of the running time to get to know them even better and all this is a testament to Rileys great script and direction.

Mountain Leopard has a behaviour that feels old and Smokey even comments that his way of speaking is kind of old fashioned. To spend a significant time of your life on a whole different continent must change you in many ways and coming back to your native land sure must feel confusing at first. Mountain Leopard observes the changes in the triad way of life while he's guided by Smokey who himself isn't all that fascinated with that world. He merely sees it as a chance to provide money for him and his mother (played by Elaine Kam). As the movie progresses the real truth slowly gets revealed and we as an audience have time to consume and ponder about it without feeling like the movie is going to fast.

The movie has elements we've seen done in a similar way before and at first the dialogue isn't all that original but it all comes together thanks to the chemistry between Eric Tsang and Nicholas Tse. The way these characters are played means that neither actor dominates the other. It's old vs. young but it's not a battle, it's a learning experience for the characters.

I've primarily seen Eric Tsang in comedy roles and the thought that he could carry a heavy drama has never struck me before but Eric quickly showcases a huge talent for the genre. We think we know his character but, as mentioned, he does have secrets regarding his return to Hong Kong. Mountain Leopard can come off as goofy at times but in dangerous situations he quickly becomes huge and the triad in him shines through. Riley have written a complex character but his arc is never unclear or hard to follow. Eric Tsang's performance is one of those where you will discover new things in either the character or the acting, that's how good Eric Tsang is in this movie.

Nicholas Tse isn't really a veteran actor as such and I've mostly seen him act in lighter action films such as Gen-X Cops. He and Eric Tsang actually played against each other in that movie but now that they're reunited, the pressure and demand on Nicholas is much greater. He has shown signs of screen presence but really nothing else and this kind of part almost feels like the ultimate test in the quest for respect as an actor. It's also the more complicated character in Metade Fumaca but Nicholas seems to have no problem acting alongside veterans and in a drama. With writer/director Riley Yip's talent backing him up, Nicholas displays a confidence in his acting and great focus on the character. Both he and Eric Tsang gets better and better with every scene that they're in and highlights include the scene under the piano as well as the shooting star moment amidst the triad confrontation. In those scenes all the elements of filmmaking comes together and they're perfect examples of why I love movies so much. Nicholas now has my respect and I hope he chooses to venture into these kind of movies again in the future.

In supporting parts we see a whole slew of familiar faces, many whom were in Gen-X Cops. Stephen Fung and Sam Lee plays the younger versions of Mountain Leopard and Nine Dragons and Terence Yin turns up as one of many young and silly dressed triads. Other players include a very funny Anthony Wong, Shu Qi as Eric Tsang's dreamwoman and Sandra Ng as the female triadboss with an interest leaned more towards good literature.

Now that we're approaching the end I want to talk about Riley's little twist towards the end of the movie. It's one where I really don't know if it's completely silly or a stroke of genius. It kind of throws logic out the window but scenes prior to this one are cinematic masterpieces so I'm willing to let that one go. I guess it's a case of 'you figure it out!'.

Of the movies I've seen this year, both old and new, Metade Fumaca comes out as the best alongside Juliet In Love. It's a masterpiece that shows a great directing talent in Riley Yip and I hope he has saved some good things for future movies. Metade Fumaca is a movie that Hong Kong movie fans should watch but also fans of world cinema should give it a chance.

The DVD:

This is probably the best letterboxed transfer I've seen from Universe. There's hardly any damage to the 1.85:1 framed print and it's crisp and sharp with no obvious sings of bleeding or edge enhancement.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 Cantonese sync sound track sounds wonderful also. This is a movie that is dialogue heave but perfectly uses the other speakers for music and ambience. I noticed some slight distortion in the dialogue at times but that's being picky. A Mandarin 5.1 track is also included.

The English subtitles are very good with minimal spelling errors and such. Shame though that they're placed partly on the widescreen frame. That's really annoying for us widescreen TV owners! Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Extras consists of two quite good trailers for this movie and the theatrical trailers for Purple Storm and Gen-X Cops (with the anti piracy message at the end).

There's also fairly good biographies for actors Eric Tsang, Nicholas Tse, Kelly Chen, Shu Qi, Stephen Fung and Sam Lee. I was kind of disappointed that director Riley Yip didn't get a biography though.

As a final note I just wanted to say that Universe should put the language and subtitle menus on the main menu, not the special features one.

Thanks to dleedlee for providing the Best Original Film Song title

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson