Metade Fumaca (1999)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-10-19
It is surprising that the director of “Lavender” was also able to make a film with lively characters in believable settings that the audience could care about but that what Riley Yip has done with “Metade Fumaca”. While doing so he managed to turn a few film conventions upside down—Mountain Leopard, well played by Eric Tsang, is insanely obsessed with a person who no longer exists. He is a coward, a liar and a cheat, has tried to commit murder and has stolen from his friends. Yet by the end of the movie we are moved by his plight and feel sorry for him.

Generally a filmmaker who uses Alzheimer’s disease or catastrophic memory loss as a theme will go out of his way to make the victim of the disease loveable—someone whose descent into the darkness we mourn. In this case Mountain Leopard has no redeeming characteristics at all. Even when he is telling the story of his flight from Hong Kong to Brazil, thirty year exile and subsequent return something seems a bit off in the telling. Later on we get the same story told from a more objective or at least more believable point of view. Where he was the hero Mountain Leopard is now the villain of the piece—and worse, until he does become the bad guy he is of no importance at all. That we are quick to believe the second version of the (seemingly) fatal encounter shows that the audience is not taken in by Mountain Leopard’s fantastic story.

Nicholas Tse is quite good as Smokey a young tough guy who we find out almost immediately is more than a little unhinged. Smokey, accompanied by a young woman, bursts into a second floor bookstore carrying a chopper. The woman identifies the clerk as someone who had molested her on the subway. Smokey slashes him with his chopper and he and the girl take off down the stairs where he literally runs into Mountain Leopard who is on his way to what he thinks is a massage parlor where his long ago triad enemy hangs out. Smokey drops his knife, Mountain Leopard drops his gun and they are both shocked to have encountered another armed hoodlum.

Smokey’s mother is a former hooker who spends all of her time sitting in a doorway in the red light district looking at passing men, trying to recognize the customer who, eighteen years ago, conceived Smokey during a very quick assignation. She could be yet another colorfully deranged character but is underplayed to perfection by Elaine Kam.

Both Terence Yin and Anthony Wong have extended, two scene cameos and both look like they are having a lot of fun. Yin is Brother Chai, a loan shark and crew boss who is just back in town from Los Angeles. He slips from Cantonese to English when shouting threats and is dressed in really outlandish costumes. Wong is Brother Kei, a retired triad who spends his days in a restaurant spinning tales of past glories to an appreciative audience of other old triad guys and some very young up and comers. Brother Kei is the benevolent side of the Hong Kong gangs, a respected and no longer dangerous elder, the person that Brother Chai could be if he survives (doubtful) and that Mountain Leopard never would be.

Sandra Ng is Third Sister, a tough-as-nails triad boss who controls her territory with unrelenting and bloody vigor but who has a soft spot for cute and well read young men. Third Sister is the twinned opposite of Sap Saam Mooi, the gang leader so memorably impersonated by Ng in “Portland Street Blues”. Shu Qi, beautiful and smoldering, (as usual) and Kelly Chan, beautiful and glacial, (as usual) play gorgeous young women.

Mountain Leopard growing disassociation from everyday life is telegraphed in a number of ways. While none of them were particularly subtle I missed the first several—he forgot “kung fu” moves he had known for years, turned the wrong way on a familiar street and bungled some routine tasks. By the time that Yip pulls out the sledge hammer and starts pounding home the point we have already learned that Mountain Leopard’s entire life is built on a lie and that he has been nothing but a treacherous lout. It is a tribute to Yip’s writing and directing and to Tsang’s acting that we feel sorry for the wreck that was formerly Mountain Leopard.

The score is terrific—not sure of its source but it sounds Afro-Brazilian with a pop sheen. It doesn’t underline the action or even really accompany it but works well as a sparkling and bright counterpoint to the darkness and mendacity that is on the screen.
Reviewer Score: 7