Midnight Madness 2010 day 10: Fire of Conscience (2010)

There's really not much to say about Dante Lam's Fire of Conscience, the closing film of Midnight Madness 2010. Which is too bad, It's always better to go out on a bang rather than a whimper.

The film is a Hong-Kong cop drama/thriller that follows a detective who has taken a vigilante-esque stance on crime after his pregnant wife was killed by a purse snatcher. He collaborates with a higher ranking officer on a case to catch a cop killer.
While the first half hour held great promise the plot becomes murkier and murkier as twists come at you in rapid fire. Following the complicated plot wouldn't be such a hassle if you genuinely cared for the characters.
This lack of care results in an anticipation of action sequences to help keep you going, sadly, the ones on display are loud and realistic but are much too short.
The film fails as an action and as a drama. When our hero is delivering a baby in a burning garage by the third act you are laughing at the mundaneness of the whole ordeal and hoping for a quick cut to the end credits.
While there is much promise here coming from director Dante Lam, it's the script that lacks emotionality and cohesiveness. Turning what should be hard hitting into straight to dvd fodder.

Why this was a Midnight Madness pick is beyond me, a film already distributed in North America getting a slot at a world reknown film festival? Was it to help the director get a festival selection credit under his belt?  Or maybe it was because the film really did fit with the theme of the festival and was great.... yeah.

If TIFF screens films we already have available for rent, then why not get a print of something real classic? A real crowd pleaser to go out on. That would have been better than this mediocrity.

And with that the festival ends on a low note, but it isn't all bad news. Joe and I caught some really excellent stuff over the past 10 days and now we can finally get some sleep.


It's a shame that after nine days of some wonderful cinematic delights (and a couple troubled productions), Midnight Madness 2010 had to end on a low note, but that's exactly what happened with last night's screening of Dante Lam's Fire of Conscience.  Lam, hailed as the successor to the Jon Woo/Johnnie To throne, has over a dozen films under his belt, and I've not seen any of them save for last night's effort.  And if Fire of Conscience is any indication, Lam has a long way to go before he fills his mentors' shoes.

Fire of Conscience has a few different concurrent storylines, but the way they are tied together is too convoluted, and the pacing of the film, while quick, is uneven.  There are a couple of decent action setpieces, but they are too few and far between.  I don't know if, after nine consecutive nights of staying up until 3:30 AM, my body was finally failing me, or if the film was really that boring, but about 20 minutes in, my eyelids started to droop, snapping open only two or three times in the remainder of the film.  If there's one thing a Midnight Madness film should NOT do, it's put you to sleep.  I really don't understand why this film was included in the program, as it doesn't benefit from being seen with a crowd, and certainly didn't (for me, at least) fit the description of a "midnight movie".

Not to mention that, with a modicum of effort, you can track this down on DVD in Chinatown (legit, not bootleg, as in, it's already been released), or, even easier, at The Film Buff West on Blu-Ray.  Being available in a format other than 35 mm should not necessarily preclude a film from being shown at MM, but if the film is to be shown, it must be a film that is tremendously enhanced by viewing with a rowdy crowd, which Fire of Conscience certainly was not.

Lam certainly has chops, but he needs to tighten everything up and lose a lot of unnecessary dialogue.  The best part of the film were the opening 5 minutes, shot in frozen black-and-white, that show us a tableau of a crime in progress, which then bleeds into colour as the action comes alive.  Thrilling, impressive stuff.  The characters may have been written strongly, but it seemed like the actors who played them didn't really buy it, and thus, we as viewers don't either.  The characters' motivations seemed weak.  Not a complete dud, but because of its inability to engage, and it's meandering script, Fire of Conscience will likely land near, if not at, the bottom of my list.

-the coelacanth


AND.....for those of you who've stuck around, you get a SUPER-BONUS, UBER-INCISIVE, APRES-CREDITS third review, courtesy of our very own La Sporgenza, who wasn't in attendance at MM, but checked out Fire of Conscience a month ago on the aforementioned DVD.  Without further ado, Sporgey:

A trip to Chinatown's only legit DVD shop about a month ago netted a Blu-ray copy of Dante Lam's latest Hong Kong actioner Fire of Conscience (2010), which coincidentally closed the Midnight Madness series Coleslaw and Dropkick have been so faithfully chronicling in recent posts. For perhaps the first time, I've actually seen one of the titles in the MM series before the lads and wondered if the environment the film was seen in might  have generated a different response to it.

As a long-time fan of the Hong Kong policier, I think it's probably worthwhile to put Dante Lam's Fire of Conscience in some sort of historical context. The Asian crime genre is about as clear-cut a film category as exists, coming into existence in the mid-'80s and continuing with films like Fire of Conscience today. The cycle was strongest in the earlier days with directors like John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johhny To and others regularly delivering poetically-tinged, action-melodramas that quickly found an international audience. After the Asian financial crisis, which dried up traditional sources of film finance as well as the local audiences' disposable income, the genre fell into period of extended decline. Exceptions existed to be sure, but a combination of factors weighed heavily on the Hong Kong film market throughout most of the 1990's. Overproduction, the exhaustion of overused formulas, and most importantly, the problem of rampant video piracy throughout East Asia, drained the industry of money and talent. From 2000 onwards the HK crime drama might have vanished entirely were it not for the efforts of a trio of directors; Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak and Johnny To. The Infernal Affairs trilogy from Lau and Mak and To's Election, Election 2, Exiled, Mad Detective and others heralded a return to form for Hong Kong cinema.

Dante Lam is a product of this post-2000 resurgence in the Hong Kong film industry. His breakout film, The Beast Stalker (2008) was a well-received, but tawdry kidnapping/action film currently unreleased to DVD in North America. I've got a Chinatown burn if anyone wants to see it. Fire of Conscience, beyond extending Lam's proclivity for terribly-titled movies, isn't really much of an advancement over his earlier works. While it sports loads of action, some grimly graphic violence and clips along at a furious pace, I found it noisy and unfocused, lacking the gravitas an actor like Simon Yam or Andy Lau might have brought to the picture. The two leads played by Ritchie Ren and Leon Lai just didn't come off as believable. I couldn't tear my eyes off Lai's wispy Inspector-Clouseau beard. It just looked ridiculous. The sole exception to the uninspired acting was Michelle Ye as the female detective, May. Her character in Fire of Conscience is a rarity in HK crime films, a bona fide female character who isn't just window dressing. I'm almost certain that most North Americans will find the goofy baby-delivery in the flame-engulfed garage near the end a tad over-the-top, even though it kind of suits the movie. I've yet to see a film from Hong Kong where something along those lines doesn't happen. It's a staple of the genre that Woo started with all his stupid doves flying around. Birth-Death-Rebirth motifs have always dominated the genre.

Fire of Conscience seems to me a strange pick for the Midnight Madness series, particularly as the program's closing-night flick. It's just too pedestrian compared to the films that preceded it. A much better choice might have been Pou-Soi Cheang's Accident from 2009, a flawed, but very inventive film (and one that, to my knowledge, hasn't received any notices outside Asia). Cheang represents a slightly different kind of upcoming HK filmmaker, one who seems less intent on simply out-To'ing and up-Woo'ing his predecessors and is instead seeking ways to expand the genre. If the Midnight Madness series is intended to be a showcase for films that cut against the grain, Fire of Conscience, like it's silly Babelfish title implies, seems hardly worthy of inclusion.

With apologies for budding into the terrific series of posts you guys have pulled together over the course of the program... I'm kinda glad to be a part of it, if only vicariously.


1 comment:

La Sporgenza said...

I guess it's "butting" in, not "budding" in.