Before hitting the big time with his Monkey King trilogy, Soi Cheang was the director of a number of excellent Hong Kong thrillers. Motorway (2012) was one; before that he helmed Accident (2009), a remarkable exercise in style, tension, and growing paranoia.
The Brain (Louis Koo) is an anonymous assassin who leads a team of operatives. Together they develop and enact elaborate murder schemes for hire: schemes that are carefully constructed so as to appear like freakish but readily explained accidents. When one of the Brain’s team is unexpectedly killed, and the police begin investigating his apartment, he becomes paranoid that he has become a target for murder himself.
It is a tremendous conceit for a motion picture, and Cheang extracts every ounce of potential from the idea. As with Motorway, Accident was produced by Johnnie To’s Milkyway Image company. A favourite of international Hong Kong cinema geeks, Milkyway Image brings with its brand a particular style of sleek, wide-angle aesthetic. Accident fits into that overall style perfectly. It looks fantastic, boasts a methodical, rising pace, and vividly captures the Hong Kong of the early 21st century.
Cheang does a marvellous job of cranking up the paranoia. The Brain may have been targeted for assassination. On the other hand, he may be so immersed in his own world of Rube-Goldberg-esque deathtraps that he can no longer see genuine coincidence for what it is. The film keeps the audience guessing right up to the final scenes, and in the meantime we are left to watch its protagonist side inexorably towards an emotional breakdown. It’s an oddly tense and quiet film. Where other Hong Kong directors would be tempted to direct this kind of story with bombast and overt emotion, Cheang keeps everything very subdued and buttoned-down. It is probably good that the film is as short as it is – less than 90 minutes – because this kind of constantly building tension couldn’t be sustained for much longer.
Louis Koo gives a strong and deliberately understated performance as the Brain, filling the character with silent calculation and pent-up frustration. The supporting cast is filled with Milkyway regulars, including Lam Suet, Michelle Ye and Richie Jen, all of whom give typically strong, slightly idiosyncratic performances. A particular standout is Shui-Fan Fung as Uncle, the oldest member of the Brain’s team who appears to be suffering from dementia. No one really wants to talk about it. In this film, what is not said feels as important as what is.
Short, to the point, and stylishly constructed, Accident is a Hong Kong thriller that is well worth tracking down. I adore his over-the-top Monkey King films, but I do think these smaller-scale, character-focused works are where his best strengths lie.