Johnnie To's priority this year is the mainland Chinese market. But the acclaimed Hong Kong director is trying to keep signature local movies in his pipeline by proxy: His frequent collaborator Law Wing-cheong is delivering a small psychological thriller that explores revenge and class tensions.
"Punished," which is scheduled to make its world premiere at the upcoming Hong Kong International Film Festival on April 4, features veteran Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong as a ruthless property tycoon who intimidates villagers in order to confiscate their land _ only to be humbled after his rebellious daughter is kidnapped and murdered. His search for revenge brings him only greater mental anguish.
The HK$23 million dollar ($3 million) production lacks the stylish, dance-like action sequences that have won To and his production company Milkyway Image international renown, but director Law _ a regular assistant director and occasional actor for To _ makes up for the deficit with a sophisticated exploration of human psychology.
Law's picture, on which To served as producer, can also be seen as a broader examination of rich-poor conflict in Hong Kong's hyper-capitalistic society. Wong's tycoon is awash with cash thanks to his brutal tactics and Hong Kong's inflated property prices. But he faces payback from the working class when a used car salesman plots his daughter's kidnapping _ and finds a willing coconspirator among Wong's staff.
The biting political commentary, the violent scenes and use of foul language are standard fare for Hong Kong cinema but are questionable for mainland China's more prudish film censors.
"This is a high-risk project," Law told The Associated Press in an interview on Wednesday. "We are talking about revenge. And there is no sense of justice in the movie: No one is arrested by police and put into jail. Whether this story meets the need of the mainland market is an unknown factor."
Taiwanese actor-singer Richie Jen, who plays Wong's bodyguard, told the AP it wasn't clear if mainland audiences would see the movie.
"Maybe they need to adjust their movies to pass censorship," Jen said.
So "Punished" investor, Hong Kong studio Media Asia, has mainly set its sights on the local market in this southern port economy that reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Despite the resumption of Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong has retained a Western-style government and civil liberties like freedom of speech.
It's an increasingly rare strategy as Hong Kong filmmakers rush to cash in on the rapidly expanding mainland market _ also coveted by Hollywood studios.
"Punished" perhaps also offers director To a way to balance his commercial pressures and his artistic integrity. The master himself finds himself increasingly pulled to the mainland. He is currently shooting the second of two romances targeted at mainland viewers _ but outsourcing projects with a more Hong Kong local flavor to his collaborators helps keep the Milkyway Image brand alive.
Still, Jen hopes the social themes in "Punished" reach a broader audience beyond Hong Kong.
"When I started shooting this movie, I knew it wasn't commercially oriented or entertainment-oriented. But it touches your heart," Jen said. "Its subject matter touches on problems facing modern society _ ethnic Chinese communities everywhere are dealing with skyrocketing property prices, tough labor markets, a breakdown in intergenerational communication."
"Punished" will be in general release in Hong Kong on May 5 after its debut.
Milkyway Image: http://www.milkywayimage.com