A Film a Week - Integrity / Lian zheng feng yun

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

Alan Mak is a Hong Kong helmer whose legacy exceeds the boundaries of the national cinema. The reason is quite simple and a part of common knowledge: "Infernal Affairs" trilogy that has spread the influence of the contemporary Hong Kong genre cinema to the whole world. Mak was not the only person responsible for it, since he collaborated with Felix Chong, with whom he also did another trilogy, "Overheard". On his own, Mak has envisioned yet another crime thriller trilogy named "Integrity", which is tonally different from his previous work. After a smart and out of the box theatrical release last year for the Chinese New Year (the slot is usually reserved for featherweight comedies and dramas) that resulted in decent earnings on the box office, "Integrity" is now available on video.

The story revolves around the relationship between an ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) chief investigator King (Lau Ching Wan) and his star witness Jack Hui (Nick Cheung) in a case against a tobacco trade company Alpha Leader's CEO and a corrupt customs agent (Anita Yuen, wasted in a bit role). When both Hui and the CEO fail to appear at the court, ICAC is given seven days to bring them. Since Hui is spotted in Australia, King's estranged wife Shirley Kong (Lam Kar Yan) is sent to persuade him as an ICAC expert negotiator, while strange things and transactions (including those in criptocurrencies) come to the light.

It is clear that fear was not the only motivator for Hui's escape, but the threat of violence hangs in the air for those involved, while everyone in ICAC tries to locate the puppet master pulling the strings in the back. It turns out that King and Hui go way back, and this type of ethically questionable operating does not sit well with King's boss (Alex Fong) and King's star status in the organization is also in danger...

The tonal difference from other Mak's works is apparent from early on, since "Integrity" is a talky cop-thriller slash procedural that is almost devoid of all the action. However, there is one car chase scene in the second half of the film that is almost too brief to be taken in consideration and one spectacular murder later on where Mak shows his directorial skills. The viewers remain engaged for the time being with a number of plot point revelations (spoken!) and twists and turns. The role models are clear here: the paranoid thrillers of the early 70s New Hollywood movement, like Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" and Alan J. Pakula's "Klute" and "The Parallax View", but Mak proves not to be the type of a writer and director who is capable of pulling it off as a proper cinematic experience. Despite the solid production values, Jake Pollock's slick cinematography, Curran Pang's precise editing and even Anthony Chue's old school orchestral score, "Integrity" looks like a high-end TV movie or like a piece of a slightly outdated mid-budget theatrical movie from twenty-something years ago.

The trouble is with Mak's writing schtick of inflationary twists and turns that can be corrected only with Mak's signature action directing, but Mak the director has taken another path here, exposing all the vulnerabilities of Mak the writer (Ram Ling and Wai Ho Chuen, also signed as writers, are secondary here). The flashbacks seem out of the blue and unnecessary, while the cliffhanger ending is obviously signalling that the sequels will appear. With them, "Integrity" might get some additional sense and, well, integrity.

The good thing with Mak's writing is that at least the trio of main actors get enough of their characters to work with and that the dialogue sounds both natural and genre-movie cool, at least with English subtitles. Veteran actor Lau Ching Wan, also known as Sean Lau, (of "Black Mask" and "Mad Detective" fame) chews the script in a self-confident, unflappable way, while his chemistry with the other two is also considerable. Chinese-Canadian actress Lam Kar Yan (Karena Lam) elevates her role from the cliché of a vulnerable female cop, since she might as well be the smarter part of the couple. The other veteran, Nick Cheung (the lead actor of Dante Lam's "Unbeateble") has the most enigmatic character to work with and he seizes the opportunity, mixing the calm attitude with the mystery around Hui.

In the end, "Integrity" can serve as the proof that the trilogies work better if they are not envisioned as trilogies in first place, but when they spontaneously grow out the frame of a single film. That means that we, as the viewers, will have to wait and see before we judge Mak's vision when, or if, the sequel gets out to the theatres and on videos. When it comes to "Integritiy" as a stand-alone movie, it is uneven, not bad per se, but there is something missing...

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