Love Battlefield (2004)

Directed by: Soi Cheang
Written by: Szeto Kam-Yuen & Jack Ng
Producer: Joe Ma
Starring: Eason Chan, Niki Chow, Wang Zhi Wen, Qin Hai Lu, Raymond Wong & Kenny Kwan

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2005:
Film Of Merit

Prepare yourself for one of the most punishing Hong Kong cinema experiences of 2004.

The relationship between Yui (Eason Chan) and Ching (Niki Chow) is fragile. They're trying to satisfy each others desires and needs but are just causing more damage in the process. Happiness seems to have entered their lives when both of them share a rare moment before their trip to Europe but it's about to derail. After finding out that their car have been stolen, a heated argument ensues and the two breaks up on the spot. Yui heads to the police station to file a report but spots his car parked. What he also finds is a man in the trunk with a gun and soon the rest of his fellow Mainland gang arrives. Cops are left dead in the shootout confrontation that follows and Yui is taken hostage. When facts are made clear that Yui's life is in danger and with no help from the police, who are suspicious of Yui's role in all this, Ching puts everything on the line to save him and keep alive whatever love that still exists...

Look at co-writer Szeto Kam-Yuen's credits as screenwriter (The Longest Nite, Expect The Unexpected) and you're suddenly not as surprised anymore about the content of Love Battlefield. A multi-genre effort that will test the boundaries of acceptance with each individual viewer. In other words, how far into depression are you willing to descend? Soi Cheang's breakout from the horror genre is more or less the important step forward that he needed to take as a filmmaker. He certainly was never around the wrong personnel (mainly producer Joe Ma and he's been collaborating with Wilson Yip on various other projects) but needed a vehicle to further himself. This unexpected romance/thriller is definitely it.

How to fuel life and romance into your relationship again? It's not the first solution but one that becomes a reality for Yui and Ching as they're both unwillingly drawn into this hostage drama, orchestrated by a ruthless gang of Mainland drug dealers. While this main section bears a striking resemblance to one of the sub-plots in Johnnie To's Breaking News, the differences are staggering to say the least. There is a strong theme here of starting anew, acknowledging your flaws and realizing what feats you need to perform in order to further your love and Soi Cheang clearly don't give a damn if he heads right into the clichés at full speed. Szeto Kam-Yuen and Jack Ng writes sufficient, overly romantic backdrops for Yui and Ching and in all honesty, as a romantic drama that the movie is in the first reel, it isn't half-bad, proving that two destined characters, on a bicycle, set to sappy music, CAN be made to work (think Comrades, Almost A Love Story). Now, what is revealed in quick-cuts is what takes place after movies like Comrades have ended but then comes the big twist.

Bring in the dark thriller section of the film as lives, innocent or not, are put at risk through the hostage drama and it's here you viewers who like to feel safe, knowing you walked into a movie of one genre, might as well get up and leave! Szeto Kam-Yuen's past work also really reflects well in the writing as the entire middle of the film is borderline nauseating in its well-executed tension, yet without incredible depth to its main characters. We are enough affected when we see the images of love in the form of Eason Chan and Niki Chow and in combination with the senseless bloodshed that occurs around them, it really is a cracking nailbiter of a movie.

And talking structure, knowing Cheang has worked closely with Wilson Yip before, one can't help to draw comparisons to how Bullets Over Summer works. A film that started incredibly violent and turned spellbindingly soft. With Love Battlefield, Cheang of course goes the opposite route and being a bit of a visual filmmaker as well, treats us to suitable bursts in terms of that. Anyone can shake their camera, add step printing but few can make it breathtaking for a scene's specific mood. Ponder what you'll see in the cutaways that Cheang employs during the first scene with the Mainlanders or when the camera is running with Eason Chan as he's trying to escape his captives early on. It's definitely successful, more than most directors manage to do in Hong Kong cinema. Bey Logan said once upon a time that Soi Cheang has a good eye and I'm still in agreement.

What brings Love Battlefield down a few notches below great, great, greatness has to do with the conscious characterdevelopment or rather lack of development in the Mainland characters. While they have a strong charismatic leader with a little bit of righteousness in him (confidently essayed by Wang Zhi Wen from The Emperor And The Assassin), the handling of these characters is very one-note. They have only one goal and know only one thing. Money and killing. Not that the supporting characters either are in any way more above these in weight but by focusing the majority of the writing on Yui and Chings, a little hole is opened up in the framework instead. The Mainlanders have personal relations amongst themselves that means something to them but they're not people who come to an understanding about the senseless lives they're living. Back in China however, who knows, maybe they weren't going to get anywhere anyway but it's all assumptions.

Definite flaws that ARE apparent mainly lies in the supporting cast. While Raymond Wong has attempted to actually create characters in this and Koma, through different costume choices, rather than just showing up to film, he's still a young, wooden actor and makes little difference or impression. Same goes for redundant character that Kenny Kwan (of the pop group Boy'z) plays but what are you gonna do? Eason Chan and Niki Chow anchors the movie fairly well though, absolutely to the point needed for us to genuinely care. Niki is still a rough actress and looks like she's on the verge of crying throughout but brings the emotions to the viewer nonetheless. Eason Chan again proves that he fares better in less predictable, serious roles and is a sympathetic victim of circumstance who has to come to terms of who he is, what his life is, during the worse of conditions.

Love Battlefield mixes its genres to quite an exhilarating effect, managing to slide past clichés and delivers something akin to fresh as well. Remember, co-writer Szeto Kam-Yuen was one of the screenwriters on Expect The Unexpected, which will be a blessing and a curse depending on who you are. You have been warned...

The DVD:

The conscious dark and drab look of the film is well matched by Mei Ah's 1.78:1 framed anamorphic transfer. Some scenes register dark but otherwise, aside from some dirt on the print, this is a good presentation.

The Cantonese/Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 track mainly engages in the front but does so very well. A Cantonese/Mandarin DTS 5.1 track and a Mandarin DD 5.1 dub is also included.

The English subtitles feature one or two grammar errors but on the whole are well worded. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

More extras than usual are included, for a Hong Kong and Mei Ah dvd that is, but only the trailer comes with English subtitles. The Making Of (7 minutes, 45 seconds) is without English translation just a boring mix of interviews, many film clips and slight behind the scenes footage.

The deleted scene-section runs for 8 minutes but features three scenes, first being an alternate ending. It's essentially the opposite of what remains the conclusion of the film right now. The other two scenes take place much earlier in the movie and concerns Yui and Ching packing for their trip to Europe. Two music videos (one regular and one karaoke version) and the Mei Ah Databank (featuring nothing but the usual cast & crew listing and plot synopsis) rounds off the disc.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson