|DVD Overheard 3
Run time: 131 min
Director: Felix Chong, Alan Mak
Writers: Felix Chong, Alan Mak
Stars: Alex Fong, Yi Huang, Louis Koo
Country: China, Hong Kong
Release Date: 30 May 2014 (China)
Like its predecessor 'Overheard 2', this trilogy capper to writer- directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong's surveillance crime thriller franchise employs the same trio of actors Sean Lau, Louis Koo and Daniel Wu albeit in different roles and a different story. This time, Mak and Chong employs the format to dish out some dirt on Hong Kong's property syndicates, essentially sham companies run by local thugs who had set themselves up to take advantage of the Government's redevelopment of the New Territories.
The subject is timely like Singapore, many ordinary Hong Kong citizens have found themselves increasingly out of reach of a place to call home, no thanks to speculators and investors who have caused prices to skyrocket in the property market and as veteran screenwriters who are best known for conceptualising the 'Infernal Affairs' trilogy, Mak and Chong demonstrate a firm grasp and understanding of the subject matter. In the prologue, they lay out the precursor to their premise, i.e. the gifting of land rights by the British colonial rulers in the 1970s to the male heir of each indigenous family living within the New Territories, and over the course of the next two hours, chart just how greedy profit-driven businessmen try to outdo each other in securing these rights from their landowners.
Sean Lau plays one such businessman, Keung, who gets his start as the right-hand man of Uncle To (Kenneth Tsang), one of the pioneers if you will of such a criminal enterprise. Keung is assisted by his three brothers, Fu (Alex Fong), Paul (Gordon Lam) and Chuck (Dominic Lam), who find themselves aligned against Mainland investor Wan (Huang Lei) and Uncle To's daughter Yu (Michelle Ye) when the latter two take their company public without giving the former quartet any share of the shareholdings. Their business rivalry gets more complicated as Keung's former buddy Jau (Louis Koo) is released from prison five years after taking the fall for killing another rival (Chin Kar Lok) in a staged DUI accident.
Turns out Jau isn't quite as loyal to the Luk brothers after spending that time in the slammer; instead, he teams up with Joe (Daniel Wu) to spy on the Luks, his motive wholly personal not only were Jau and Yu lovers, Jau remains bitter for having received scant compensation from the Luks for taking their fall. Instead of law enforcement, it is a computer hacker who happens to possess the high-tech equipment necessary for the comprehensive surveillance in order for Jau to plot and plan his game of revenge against the Luks. Admittedly, that is a stretch, even more so considering the range of equipment in his possession that seems engineered for narrative convenience than for anything else and Mak and Chong do themselves no favours by inserting Vincent Kok in a bit role as an equally tech-savvy expert whom Keung visits late into the movie after suspecting that he might be tapped.
More so than in the earlier movies, the concept of surveillance appears contrived, in equal parts lacking in both realism and significance. Indeed, Mak and Chong want their audience to believe that Joe is able to install hidden cameras in Keung, Fu, Paul and Chuck's offices, turn the counter-surveillance devices they carry on them into listening devices, and tap on their phones to rely on both the front and back cameras to spy on them. It requires a significant suspension of disbelief to think that Yu is able to pull off something on that scale, especially how he operates as a lone outfit. Yes, it suffices to say that Mak and Chong have taken the omnipresence of being watched a little too liberally and nowhere is that more evident than in a dues-ex-machina where Yu finds the tables have turned on her and Wan.
Compared to its predecessors too, the storytelling goes bogged down in way too much exposition particularly in the middle segment. As Uncle To makes an unannounced return halfway into the movie, Mak and Chong make the proceedings unnecessarily convoluted with talk of double-crossings, shifting loyalties and even triple-crossings. What also proves lacking is character development, and besides Joe who stays pretty much a blank slate throughout the film, the rest of the characters whether Keung or Jau remain the one-note villain they begin the movie as. The fact that Mak and Chong are better writers than directors only exacerbates the faults of their screenplay, so much so that the film lacks the narrative momentum to keep you engaged from scene to scene.
Not even an ensemble cast can quite redeem this lethargic exercise. Lau is believably conniving, but that's as far as his character goes throughout the movie. Koo fails to convey the scorn his character must possess in order to turn against his sworn brothers, and thereby comes off a weak counterpoint against the Luks. Joe comes off even more humdrum, his rationale for assisting Jau in the first place never even discussed. Fong and the other two Lams add some colour as scoundrels, but the only character that manages to be anywhere near appealing is Zhou Xun's widow Moon, whom both Keung and Joe happen to have a crush on. Xun underplays her character's grief nicely, and is a welcome contrast to the overacting of many of the other characters.
Still, compared to the earlier two instalments, 'Overheard 3' ends the franchise on a tepid note. The themes of brotherhood, loyalty, greed, betrayal and corruption are intact, the premise fitting and prescient, but the execution this time round both in the scriptwriting and directing department unfortunately falling short of its predecessors. As a drama, it isn't quite as engaging or as compelling as it needs to; and as a thriller, let's just say it doesn't fit the description.
The Overheard franchise is built on a fascinating premise: each film in the trilogy spins a thriller from the high-tech world of electronic espionage and surveillance, but the stories don't connect. Instead, the same core group of three actors – Louis Koo, Sean Lau and Daniel Wu – take on different roles, whether as cops (Overheard 1), stockbrokers (Overheard 2) or wannabe property magnates. This third film pulls off the oddly miraculous feat of being surprisingly watchable even though its plot – centred on the complexities of Hong Kong's property market – is almost catastrophically murky.
In a small country where land is scarce, there's much money to be made from the land rights pledged to every native male resident in Hong Kong's New Territories. Keung (Lau) and his three brothers (played by Alex Fu, Gordon Lam and Dominic Lam) are wheeling, dealing and doing everything they can to get a huge slice of that pie. They believe that Jau (Koo) is on their side, especially after he ploughs a car into a business rival and sits in jail for five years to prove his allegiance. But, really, Jau is keeping close tabs on Keung et al, his loyalties perhaps foolishly pledged to Yu (Michelle Ye), the driven daughter of Uncle To (Kenneth Tsang) – who is himself trying to set up a lucrative business deal with Chinese investor Wan (Huang Lei).
The story gets increasingly complicated as the film goes on, with subplots sprawling out in every direction. As the men talk and barter and fight over land rights, no houses actually get built, and the noble village people teach the arrogant city folk that land is for tilling and not for sale. (Or something like that.) We also meet Eva (Zhou Xun), a resourceful single mother – as it becomes increasingly clear to the audience just who she is, we learn that she will play an important role in the lives of both Keung and Joe (Wu), Jau's tech expert. After a point, it becomes tough to remember – or care – just how the entire complicated web of relationships works.
What's so surprising about Overheard 3 is that it remains a tolerably engaging watch despite its many flaws. The story is a mess, but the script has moments of surprising insight. It's a rare and unusual film that can lose track of its plot while still keeping its characters fascinating, but Overheard 3 somehow manages to pull it off. Keung has a humanity and depth that keep him from being the film's easy villain, just as Jau's fatal flaw is shown to be also his greatest strength: his devotion to the one he loves. Of course, the entire enterprise is helped immeasurably by the fact that its cast is very good. There are even bursts of welcome humour scattered throughout the movie.
By the time the film dives headfirst into its manic brick-tossing, car- tipping finale, you would either have written it off or given in to its odd rhythm and charms. Overheard 3 is not, strictly speaking, a good film. However, disregard the twists and turns of its unnecessarily labyrinthine plot, and it will prove a strangely compelling watch.