Yu Qiu (Nick Cheung) is a police officer deep undercover among the city drug gangs. After rescuing a young girl from a kidnapping, he stumbles upon a criminal enterprise exploiting children at the behest of a criminal mastermind known only as “the Boss”. With the help of his handler Jim (He Jiong) and technical aide Jackie (Yu Nan), Yu shoots his way through the criminal underground to track them down.
So far, so predictable. The bit that throws Nick Cheung’s new Hong Kong crime film for a loop is how that relatively ordinary story plays out on screen. Based on the premise, for example, you would not expect the first scene to involve Cheung having a fight with a hyena in Namibia. Nor would you expect the film to keep throwing in elements of near-future science fiction. The film is not set in Hong Kong either, but in the fictional city of Solo Field – a smoky, rain-drenched metropolis with a population of 20 million and a skyline that does not appear to end.
Visually the film is all over the place, with a surfeit of CGI imagery giving everything an unrealistic sort of Sin City-style sheen and action photography that regularly feels as if the camera operator was having a seizure. It is incoherent, but also strangely thrilling. The picture has been colour-graded down to a grimy combination of greys.
The script, it must be said, is terrible. The dialogue is repetitively on the nose and the characters for the most part are crudely drawn. The cast, however, seem game for anything. They are led by Cheung – star, writer and director – who plays Yu with a nice level of humour and a solid physicality. He Jiong seems deliberately ridiculous, with his lanky frame drowned in a 1940s hat and overcoat and his character performed in a ridiculously earnest (and earnestly ridiculous) fashion. For Hong Kong movie fans there are a range of popular actors in a variety of roles, including Michael Miu, Maggie Cheung (no, the other one), and cult legend Lam Suet. Xu Jinglei makes a glorious impression halfway through the film, giving it a nice boost of energy and a valuable second wind.
It would be hard to describe The Trough as a good film and keep a straight face. The story is a complete mess, with huge leaps in plot and logic. The dialogue is regularly risible to the point of hilarity. The visuals are inconsistent and regularly a little too ambitious for their production budget. And yet The Trough is also wonderfully entertaining. It’s the perfect cult movie in the making: too weird for the mainstream, too uneven to gain broad critical respect, and just kooky enough to hopefully attract a small crowd who will talk about it at parties for years. Of course true cult films you can never properly pick at the time, but The Trough – not only despite its faults but partly because of them – is certainly in the running.