Rule #1 (2007)

Written & directed by: Kelvin Tong
Producers: Lam Tak & Candy Leung
Starring: Shawn Yue, Ekin Cheng, Stephanie Che, Fiona Xie & Renee Lee

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This Ekin Cheng vehicle was kept off the radar (or rather my radar) until a very strange announcement came hurling towards it; Ekin Cheng (and Shawn Yue)... wait for it... Best Actors (at the 12th Pucheon Fantastic Film Festival)?! Now award juries rarely have their sights tuned to reality (something especially true for the Hong Kong Film Awards) but to see not so hailed but rather lambasted wooden presence Ekin Cheng get recognized in this regard requires some hefty jump in logic. Or does it... because I've maintained over the years that the best thing Cheng could do was to grow older (and get a haircut) and slowly, possibly only super-mildly surely, a transformation in presence (meaning a generic rom/com like It Had To Be You very much benefited with him on board) and the types of roles given/taken is changing in the once Young And Dangerous hero. Rule #1, helmed by Singaporean director Kelvin Tong (1*) actually breaks no rules in the buddy cop/murderer hunt/ghost/horror mold it is born but is a truly exciting emergence despite.

Kelvin Tong may be an import but is not brought in to make a Hong Kong movie according to the standard. That means there is a mood decided beforehand and that mood can only broken in a suitable way. It shows early as he shocks with senseless killings of innocent bus riders and then cuts to a flashback where we see cop Lee Kwok Keung (Shawn Yue - Shamo, The Moss) stop a driver who has not fastened his seatbelt. Noticing that his headlight is out as well and that blood is visible on the car, Lee has stumbled upon a serial killer that viciously starts to torture him by shooting Lee in arms, legs and feet. As he's down and out Lee sees the murdered girl in the trunk rise up and this also gives him a chance to take out the killer. Rehabilitated later and sticking to his supernatural story, Lee is assigned to the Miscellaneous Affairs Department (MAD) with Inspector Wong (Ekin Cheng) who soon has to explain their government supported mission is to stop ghosts from possessing humans. Even if it means the murder of the innocent the ghosts take over or leave behind (as the victims become shells anyway)...

Minor quirks aside (one that involves Lee's and Wong's unseen superior always eating), whenever definite talent Kelvin Tong does tickle us, it's part of the buddy cop formula in the most logical of ways. Wong is an alcoholic and shouldn't be driving so naturally humour is created out of that. But out of simple editing choices that remain low-key but Tong's intentions are far, far, FAR more darker than this. In a way I'm willing to believe he knows his own script isn't breaking any ground and borderlines on merely basic/functional at times. But the attempt for Rule #1 is not to make a statement but to take the audience on a heavily darkened ride. Therefore the dips into the personal lives of Lee, that mainly deals with his pregnant girlfriend and Wong's prior relationship with Stephanie Che's character, are script inclusions that would never have one thinking it's an exciting page turner. But Tong would argue that the true page turning will occur when there's sound and images put to them. And he would be so right.

Lacking little lazy notions of how to shock and scare an audience but few revolutionary tactics, it works due to the mentioned choice of darkness and a sense of doom that is thoroughly alluring. Especially so since the description of the possession is that of a virus. One cop has therefore had to set aside life responsibilities in favour of saving the society (not at all a weight on your shoulders when you're working alone then) and one is about to. It's a terrifying notion and a heavy responsibility that could only end in seclusion for any character having to take this task on. And as Kelvin Tong genuinely surprises and terrifies us with his supernatural turns, the pace is ramped up so it's a chase scenario worthy of status.

A status that doesn't make Rule #1 anything but loud, exciting entertainment but it's one of those creations that has decided to be just that. Although director Tong doesn't trust his audience to keep up with the script as he uses a lot of expository flashbacks, it's nevertheless in secure hands we feel, even down to scenes of Ekin Cheng dancing with an inflatable dinosaur. Tong has an eye for basic structure and pays this off. Hence that quirky scene working. He also gets leads Shawn Yue and Cheng to go as much intense and reserved places as the basic/functional writing logically allows and summing up Rule #1, if anything it's close to a perfectly executed piece based on what it wants to do. That's clever filmmaking.

The DVD:

Joy Sales presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.83:1 approximately, with anamorphic enhancement. Transfer looks sharp and suitably colourful.

Audio options are Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, Cantonese DTS 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 but as I'm not equipped with such a system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review.

The English subtitles are free from obvious spelling- and grammar errors. They go out of synch during one exchange towards the end but quickly get back on track. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.

A sparse selection of extras are included, starting with Ghost's File (1 minute, 17 seconds) a slideshow of images and Chinese text, with the majority of them being taken at various premieres for the movie. The Making Of (16 minutes, 56 seconds, in Mandarin and with permanent Chinese subtitles only) follows the usual routine format and the trailer (with optional English subtitles) for Rule #1 follows. The remaining two Chinese language options are promos for the film, with the first (1 minute, 1 second) containing English soundbites from director Tong, quick clips and interviews with supposedly real police talking of the presence of spirits while the second looks like a 30 second TV spot.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson


(1) Director of Love Story, one of the movies in Andy Lau's "FOCUS: First Cuts" program.