Between sci-fi blockbusters and high profile comedies, Hong Kong unleashed a new crime thriller for the Chinese New Year movie season. Integrity is the new film by Alan Mak, best known for the Infernal Affairs and Overheard trilogies. Hong Kong cinema is undergoing a massive transformation at the moment; studio productions are now largely subsumed by the mainland, with Chinese co-productions accounting for a majority of the films being made, and an underground, independent movement operates in opposition to the mainland, often running afoul of Chinese censors. It’s no surprise that Hong Kong’s independent cinema rarely makes its way over here; Western audiences, rather, are treated to safely packaged studio fare, approved by China’s notorious censorship board. Established and celebrated Hong Kong filmmakers, meanwhile, have had varying success chasing the mainland audience; Johnnie To has made no secret of his disdain for the system, while Stephen Chow has integrated himself with incredible success, breaking box office records in 2016 with The Mermaid.
Alan Mak seems to be staying in his lane with Integrity, which is as safely packaged as studio fare gets. It’s reminiscent of the films that made him famous, but sticking to his guns this time around results in a disappointing lack of ambition (also guns, incidentally; the film is largely devoid of action). It’s a thriller with no thrills.
The film stars veteran Hong Kong actors Sean Lau and Nick Cheung and Vancouver-born Karena Lam, out here representing for Canada (and the movie gives her as much English dialogue as it can). Cheung plays a whistleblower who has information on a criminal conspiracy involving his employers. Lau and Lam play ICAC agents attempting to build a case against the company that employs Cheung. The setup is intriguing, and the initial ambiguity regarding Cheung’s willingness to testify, and whether or not he flees to Australia under duress, provides a solid first act. It’s a slow burn, but it’s effective insofar as we can trust Mak is going somewhere.
Alas, not really. The plot drags through a painfully long second act, and the third act revelations are dismal. The details of the criminal case become increasingly uninteresting; the identity of the puppetmaster, for example, is largely irrelevant to the plot, and the reveal is treated with a peculiar indifference. Mak instead doubles down on the interpersonal drama between the three leads, drip-feeding flashbacks that keep going further and further back in time, stretching credulity and this viewer’s patience. The drama is largely inert; the romantic relationship between Lau and Lam’s characters feels forced and lacks chemistry, and the revelations in the flashbacks are far too hilariously contrived to pass muster. Worse, they feature ridiculous de-aging CGI, which transforms Lau into a sentient wax sculpture whose skin threatens to slide off his skull at any second. The longer this movies goes, the more questionable Mak’s creative choices get.
It’s a shame Mak’s writing leaves so much to be desired, because he’s not a bad filmmaker. Mak has frequently collaborated with Felix Chong in the past, but Integrity is a solo writing and directing effort; Chong, however, still worked on the film as a producer. It’s a similar setup to Project Gutenberg, Chong’s solo effort released last year, in which Mak served as an artistic director. Mak fares much better than Chong as a stylist; his direction is sharp and assured, whereas Chong is often sloppy and undisciplined. Mak has strong control of tone and delivers some striking images, and a couple assassination scenes near the end of the film are impressively mounted. But, ultimately, Chong’s film is the more entertaining of the two; for all of its inconsistencies, Chong at least tried to punch up his material in some way, and had Chow Yun-fat to carry the film. Mak, on the other hand, seems to be idling, creatively; his work is solid but pales in comparison to something like Infernal Affairs. He’s stuck on autopilot, and the result is a decidedly dull film.
For all the criticisms I could (and did) levy at The Wandering Earth, at least it has ambition and spirit. It reaches for the stars, quite literally. Integrity, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be reaching for anything. With Integrity, Mak is serving up the cold leftovers of his earlier career. And it all looks cynical and arrogant, too; the film arrives with a marketing campaign touting it as the first part of a planned trilogy. Given the success of Infernal Affairs and Overheard, Mak seems to be banking on name recognition and prior successes harder than anybody else this season. I’m not sure how he plans to build a trilogy out of this lacklustre material, especially given the way he wraps the plot up with such seeming disinterest. Box office results will determine if Mak gets to make a follow-up, but he’d be better off leaving this as a standalone and moving to something else.
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