Bangkok Dangerous (1999)

Co-director Oxide Pang has admitted that the script of Bangkok Dangerous combines two ideas which weren't strong enough to make separate films - the real-life murder of Saengchai Sunthornwat, director of the Thai Mass Communications Authority, and his killer's apparently sincere but sudden remorse; and a plot nugget about a a deaf and dumb man romancing a girl he can't communicate with verbally. The result is a stylish, imaginative effort - influenced as much by Wong Kar Wai as John Woo - that makes connections in the hesitant romantic sub-plot, but is mostly an empty gloss on the figure of the cool, alienated hit man who finally asks questions about his calling and is thus led to destruction.
A theme established as long ago as Don Siegel's The Killers (1964) and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967), this hit-man-with-a-heart business has become such a thundering cliché that yet another variation has to struggle uphill to make any impression. It used to be that the assassin's existential dilemma was enough to make the point, but ever since Jean Reno's childlike 'cleaner' in Luc Besson's Leon (1994) the trend has been to give the killer some sort of handicap as an extra layer of insulation, here provided by Kong's deafness. This is initially an advantage in his profession, in that he can't be distracted while aiming at a target and isn't startled or incapacitated by loud shots, and even allows him to be more direct with Fon without revealing what he does for a living, but eventually gets in the way, not only of his survival but of plot credibility. Crucial, character-changing information is conveyed by a TV voice-over Kong oughtn't to understand, and the Miracle Worker moment as Kong tries at last to talk, to beg forgiveness and declare love, as he is on his knees in the rain with a gun pressed to his temple so he can shoot himself and his boss with one trigger-pull, is a moment of bathos not assisted by slo-mo as Fon and the police run in vain towards the scene and big fat raindrops splatter all around like the bullets we see in now-overfamiliar extreme slow motion gunshots.
Hong Kong-born but Thai resident since 1992, the Pang Brothers seem intent, despite the title, on creating what might be called an anonymous Asian cinema: all neon nightclubs, meals interrupted by murder, virtual rollercoasters, editing tricks and Christopher Doyle-look cinematography. From a British viewpoint, it would seem they missed the really interesting aspect of the specific local crime recreated in the film - not the assassin's remorse (in real life, expressed only when he was caught) but the fact that Thai broadcasting licenses are billion-baht deals worth killing over. The lives of Kong, Fon and Joe are believably marginal-but-not-impoverished - Fon has a chatty workmate best friend and lives with a comically deaf Grandmother, both of whom provide subtle contrasts to the silent, spaniel-eyed Kong - but the crime hierarchy they are embroiled with is something out of silent melodrama, with the perfidious boss taking his orders from a Dragon Lady whose face is always cut in half by the edge of the frame and cover businesses for the rackets selected because they make visually interesting backdrops for shoot-outs (the climax takes place in a water-bottling plant). Though the lead performances of Pawalit Mongkolpisit and Premsinee Ratanasopha are unaffected, too much of the action and the heart-tugging is too pat not to be laughed at - a tricky hit carried out on the Hong Kong subway, Kong's uninhibited enjoyment of a Charlie Chaplin film festival.
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: Sight & Sound vol.12 no.3 (March 2002) pp.36-37


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