Set To Kill (2005)
Directed by: Marco Mak
Assistant chief officer in an investment bank Connie (Ning Jing - Divergence) discovers that money has been laundered within the bank but now they're gone. She divulges this info to the CEO and boyfriend Billy (Johnny Lu) but soon thereafter an attempt on her life is made. It's the workings of the mysterious Big Boss who wants his money back and the pair turn to retired triad leader Uncle Ghost (Lau Siu-Ming) for help. He assigns a team of bodyguards to protect her round the clock, one of which is Nick (Raymond Wong - Colour of The Truth, Koma), an ex-boyfriend of Connie's. More attempts on Connie's life are made and soon a seemingly simple job turns complex as people and things are not what they seem to be...
It may almost sound like I'm defending shoddy filmmaking at times but once again reviewing a Marco Mak directed movie, it's hard not to state that he's emerging as some sort of mini-king amongst constant quality filmmakers. Only catch is that Mak rarely rises above the B-movie area of Hong Kong cinema or delivers anything but a decent time, more so when working in gangster thriller territory. And there's something about all this that makes me happy, to know what you're going to get, nothing else plus a bit of visual jazz since Mak has delivered fine work in that aspect many times as well. Not many can log steady work and deliver bearable cinema numerous times (see The Blood Rules, A Gambler's Story and Colour of The Truth, which he co-directed with Wong Jing). So shortly after, again, the decent thriller Slim Till Dead where Mak re-teamed with credible acting talent in the form of Anthony Wong (who did log some actual acting at times in there but less so compared to Colour of The Truth), Set To Kill premiered on a very limited number of screens. With its biggest star being weak leading man/usually non-intrusive Johnnie To supporting player Raymond Wong, it's clear that this triad/action/thriller isn't the biggest project on the block and expectedly, it made zero ripples at the box office (but maybe made money due to the low budget supplied to Mak?). Verdict on this one? Do I need to tell you again?
So with almost anything bearing Mak's name in the directing credits, it's increasingly frustrating to come up with varied forms of expressing the grade his movies often end up at, which is decent. But I like the word decent and despite my quibbles with Slim Till Dead clearly showing a non-progressive Marco Mak, with Set To Kill he almost seems to delight in his limited range as a storyteller and instead assaults image- and sound wise. Because Set To Kill is a LOUD film, initially borderlining on comedic the way Mak uses enhanced sound to every motion made. Yet, when the beginning is over, the verdict on whether or not Mak's relentless visual assault is a cover for inadequacy and a desperate cry to get noticed is in and once again, Mak involves to a decent level.
Editing all those Tsui Hark movies of the past clearly got Mak turned onto how to tell a story with the visual tricks of the trade but Set To Kill further showcases that Marco never really tapped into the storytelling qualities Tsui combined with his eye for insane imagery. That is really ok though when dealing with the action-thriller that Set To Kill is because no one, perhaps even including writer Tai Kak Kong are in it for the depth. Only desire is perhaps a bit of serviceable emotion when it comes to the core relationship between Nick and Connie. But that's about it aside from the usual themes of love, loyalty and betrayal but in a way, Mak goes for a quirky stance to the material if you look at his final reel. Here the expected twists come out but Mak instead, for what seems like 20 minutes goes so totally insane with shifts in the story that the audience gets truly lost when it comes to all facets of the relationships. Yet, when the basic meaning eventually gets through, we're ok and secondly, it's a lot of fun watching Mak twist the edgy atmosphere into silliness and back into edgy and silliness again.
All this is really highly forgiving remarks if you're a serious critic so shoot me, but if a director sweeps the viewer of its feet via extensive noise and arresting visuals, then I'm all for it. Everything is extremely hard boiled, our bodyguards of course the coolest people alive and while little can be taken seriously, when at points main characters lives are at stakes, Mak's directing and editing actually wins us over and we even participate emotionally for a few beats. How ever hard it is to admit. Also, Mak deserves credit for making what clearly is a low-budget film look superbly slick and whenever working with veteran action director Bruce Law, he gets the adrenaline pumping to a very good degree and there's even a decently put together mall shootout, something we don't see everyday in today's Hong Kong cinema. He's also brought in award winning composer Marco Wan (Taiwan Golden Horse Award for Best Score on Colour of The Truth) who mixes the generic techno tracks with latin flavours and unashamedly romantic Canto-pop dribble that really does go hand in hand with Mak's sense of fun towards the film.
Armed with actors that have appeared in larger motion pictures (Raymond Wong in several Johnnie To films and Berg Ng in the Internal Affairs series), Mak may intend to get a performance out of Wong but since he only has 3 facial expressions, that battle isn't worth fighting. Rightfully Mak makes us concentrate on his own work where the actors are merely puppets for his trickery, and that makes it all passable. Ning Jing however logs a delicious little performance and it clear fairly early that we've not seen all of her character-tricks. Question is, how will Mak shoot the continuing exploration into her agenda? Now THAT is the thing worth watching! Carl Ng, the son of Richard Ng appear in support as well as veteran Lau Siu-Ming.
In a way, Marco Mak feels like a director having working habits akin to the glory years of the 80s and early 90s Hong Kong cinema, churning out cheap movie after movie of decent quality entertainment and Hong Kong cinema today might be in need of someone like him even though his resume in the directing department won't raise any eyebrows (outside Colour of The Truth). Set To Kill is content-wise standard gangster genre fodder, only spiced up to an extreme with Marco Mak's crazy view on how movies should look and sound. It's definitely so over the top and silly that no one will walk away feeling fulfilled by the thrilling twists and character depth but it's kind of tasty and fun to follow. Problem is, very few are willing to.
Panorama presents the film in an anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 framed aspect ratio. Print is clean and sharp while Mak's chosen subdued colour scheme seems presented well.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is highly lively, using all speakers to an immersing effect. A Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also included as well as the same options for the Mandarin dub (Ning Jing and Johnny Lu's synch sound Mandarin dialogue is maintained on these tracks).
The English subtitles come with a few grammar errors at points but presents a translation that is easy to follow, even though the movie isn't always. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. Extras are limited to the teaser trailer for the film (this clip incorporates shots from Colour Of The Truth to promote Set To Kill) as well as previews for Butterfly and 2 Young.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson