A comedy about an aging hit man returning to his profession turns out to be a timely reminder and elegiac meditation on what it means to grow old in Hong Kong. Time is the feature debut for filmmaker Ricky Ko, and signifies a bright future for this experienced film professional who is only directing his own films now, at 49 years old.
Chau (Patrick Tse) is an elderly noodle cook who finds his job replaced by a machine. His old friend and former associate Mrs Fung (Petrina Fung) has a fresh proposition: returning to their old vocation as professional killers. Fung takes the bookings, fellow retiree Chung (Lam Suet) is the driver, and Chau dispatches the victims with his iconic curved blade. This time there is a difference, however, as Fung’s clients are not criminal gang lords but rather elderly Hong Kong residents seeking an assisted suicide.
Chau’s new life is immediately complicated by an encounter with Tze Ying (Chung Suet-Ying), a suicidal 16 year-old who has booked Chau’s services under false pretenses. He refuses the job, of course, and a sensitively written and portrayed relationship develops between them. The film is a deft mixture of laugh-out-loud comedy, character drama, and a light touch of intermittent action. It is a specifically Hong Kong style of story; one cannot imagine it playing out the way it does anywhere else in the world.
Getting old affects each of the three protagonists in different ways. Chau is forced out of a job by advancing technology. Fung is under pressure to sell her apartment, move to a retirement village, and give her money to her dismissive son and daughter-in-law. Chung, a frequent visitor to sex workers, has conflated business with love and wants to marry his favourite girl. Ricky Ko casts the film impeccably, accentuating its underlying themes with his choices of actor. Suet is a no-brainer: a mainstay of Hong Kong cinema, the role matches his growing age (he was 57 when it was released) and feels tailored to his particular – and often peculiar – charms. 67 year-old Petrina Fung has been acting since the last 1950s – she was two – although she has slowed down somewhat in recent years. She is a two-time winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards (for 92 Legendary La Rose Noire and C’est la Vie Mon Cheri), and is gifted with a role here that offers comedy, drama, and the chance to sing a handful of Cantonese ballads.
It is, however, 84 year-old Patrick Tse who dominates the film. He plays Chau with a quiet dignity and a canny sense of comedy. He cuts a surprisingly stylish figure with his thin suits and balding ponytail. In the 1960s he was a popular local actor. In the 1970s he directed and produced a handful of films. In the 1980s he starred in a number of hugely popular television dramas, including The Legend of the Condor Heroes. He largely retired in the 1990s with only a select few roles since. Seeing him take the lead in Time is absolutely marvellous, and he makes his part absolutely shine.
The great cast are simply the crowning touch on a beautifully created multi-genre classic. The comedic parts are funny. The dramatic portions are lightly observed. The way Ko has blended the elements together reveal a superb new filmmaking talent.
Time is currently streaming in Australia on Netflix.