Despite having already premiered in New York earlier this year in a smattering of local cinemas, the screening of Dante Lam’s latest film, the Chinese mega-blockbuster Operation Red Sea, was one of the most hotly anticipated events of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. A cataclysmic cross between the gung-ho jingoist action blowouts of Michael Bay and the heroic bloodshed melodramas of Hong Kong, the film’s more-is-more aesthetic resulted in one of the most thrilling and punishing spectacles in recent world cinema, surpassed only by George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
Afterwards, while many still sat shell-shocked in their seats, the lights came up and Lam received one of the festival’s highest honors: the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema. Even if Lam had been a fresh film school graduate who’d lucked into the budget to make Operation Red Sea, that single film would justify such an award. While Lam may not be as prominent a name in the West as John Woo or Tsui Hark, he nonetheless boasts an impressive career stretching back over 20 years as one of China’s go-to action auteurs. Beginning as a mere production assistant in the mid-80s, Lam worked his way up into the director’s chair where he quickly established a reputation for bold genre experimentation. In addition to Operation Red Sea, this year’s festival screened two of Lam’s other films in a mini-retrospective detailing his love of transcending cinematic norms.
The first was the tenth anniversary screening of Beast Stalker, a crime drama that played at the 2008 NYAFF. Within the first few scenes of the film, overzealous police sergeant Tong Fei (Nicholas Tse) unknowingly shoots and kills a kidnapped little girl hidden in the trunk of a car during a high speed highway chase with a group of criminals attempting to rescue their boss Chuen Yat-tung (Lau Kong) from police custody. Three months later, Tong has struck up a friendship with the girl’s mother Gao Min (Zhang Jingchu) and her second daughter Ling-ling (Wong Suet-yin). In a crippling twist of fate, Gao is Chuen’s federal prosecutor, an association which leads to Ling-ling being kidnapped by one of his men, the sadistic assassin Hung King (Nick Cheung). The ransom? Falsified court evidence exonerating Chuen. Drowning in guilt over her sister’s death, Tong sets out to rescue Ling-ling or literally die trying while Gao struggles to maintain her sanity in the face of potentially losing a second child.
With its use of flashbacks and its preoccupation with seemingly cosmic coincidences, Beast Stalker owes as much to hyperlink cinema as it does to traditional police thrillers, in particular Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). Both take nonlinear approaches to examine the disparate consequences of singular acts of violence on unwitting, unconnected bystanders. The various plot threads in Beast Stalker flow back together like tributaries snaking into a river delta, revealing almost all the principle characters in the film had their lives permanently rocked by the killing—even ones we’re initially led to believe weren’t anywhere near said accident. Some of these connections seem forced or counter-intuitive: why would any court allow the mother of a child killed in a police action capturing a criminal remain said criminal’s prosecutor? And why would Tong’s department let him anywhere near Gao or the operation to rescue Ling-ling? Wouldn’t they be terrified of getting sued on a wrongful death charge? Beast Stalker isn’t interested in traditional narrative logic, indulging in the extreme emotional pathos of its far-fetched scenario and the occasional glimpses of humanity that can shine through in even the worst circumstances, such as a tender scene where Ling-ling helps Hung—quickly going colorblind due to an eye injury—sort different colored pills for his terminally ill wife.
Much as Beast Stalker used the trappings of the police procedural to explore the inter-connectivity of mankind, the second film in the retrospective—2013’s Unbeatable—is an almost-but-not-quite retelling of the Rocky mythos to explore the theme of fatherhood and personal responsibility. The film follows Ching Fai (Nick Cheung), an ex-boxing champion run afoul of the Hong Kong triads who flees to Macau to start a new life, and Lin Siqi (Eddie Peng), a wannabe fighter who wants to enter a local MMA tournament with a fat cash prize. Ching and Lin eventually fall into each other’s lives and before long Ching starts training Lin for the films main tournament.
There are surprisingly fewer fighting scenes than one might expect in a brassy martial arts movie, and the featured handful are not shot in a traditional Hong Kong style. Eschewing their trademark meticulous fight choreography, bouts are captured largely in hand-held close-up with rapid-fire editing dissecting each individual move into several independent cuts. It’s reminiscent of the fighting in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) where following the ebb and flow of the matches mattered less than creating a punishing, ceaseless rhythm of violent impacts that strip away their fighters’ personalities to their basest animalistic drives. These fights are largely a blur, even the climactic scene where one of the fighters dislocates their shoulder for an otherwise impossible knockout. As in Beast Stalker, it’s the scenes in-between the action that most concerns Lam, particularly Ching’s gradual transformation into a father figure to both Peidan and Ching. Lam manages to keep even the most inane narrative diversions from completely distracting from the film’s inspirational sports narrative.
The aforementioned Operation Red Sea is the most straightforward of Lam’s three films. A nationalistic Chinese power fantasy not unlike the low-budget Cannon Group action packed dreck of the 80s and 90s, it’s a scourging spectacle that reduces complex international relations down to a simplistic China-good/West-bad duality. The film centers on the elite Jiaolong Assault Team as they save Chinese ships from Somalian pirates, rescue Chinese citizens—and only Chinese citizens—from a Middle Eastern town overrun by Arabic terrorists, and retrieve a stolen shipment of yellowcake uranium produced by an evil American businessman. Somewhere along the way they pick up Xia Nan (Hai Qing), a French-Chinese journalist who completes Lam’s trifecta of grieving mothers by having lost both her husband and son in the 7 July London bombings.
It’s difficult to think of another mainland Chinese film before Operation Red Sea that depicts modern Chinese soldiers getting killed. Make no mistake, the 8-man special forces unit at the core of the film undergoes physical punishment the likes of which one scarcely sees outside schlocky horror movies: it’s gory and grim, made all the more surreal by the fact that the film is unapologetic Chinese military propaganda. (In one of the most queasy, unsettling post-credits scenes ever shot, the film ends with a fleet of Chinese ships intercepting a trio of belligerent US Navy ships invading their territorial waters.) The psychological brutality of the carnage allows Lam better entryways into exploring his characters’ emotional interiors, particularly Xia, whose near suicidal need to throw herself into harm’s way to get a story seems like a cry for help, particularly after her Western assistant is captured and beheaded in a viral video by Arabic terrorists.
Many Chinese filmmakers have self-imposed themselves to Hong Kong exile so they could pursue their art without Beijing’s ethnocentric censors breathing down their necks. And considering the undercurrent of xenophobia in Unbeatable—Lin’s first opponent is a cruel, monosyllabic Westerner everyone disparages for fighting only with brute strength—it’s possible that the racist depiction of non-Chinese combatants and civilians in Operation Red Sea was Lam’s invention, not Beijing’s. But this is only guesswork. Hopefully the compassion for flawed people in pain that fueled both Beast Stalker and Unbeatable will return in Lam’s future films. Hope springs eternal.