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September 27, 2011

The Stool Pigeon

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Sin yan
Dante Lam - 2010
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

An almost visual constant in The Stool Pigeon is the lack of space. Streets and alleys are narrow, with only room to run forwards or back, often to an enclosed space. Even when there is the rare shot of sky, it is surrounded by the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. The effect is like watching people running through a maze, only more deadly. The sense of physical enclosure is also stressed with characters inside cars, hiding within the cramped spaces of a street market, and in an abandoned classroom stuffed with chairs. For Dante Lam, there is no escape, whether from cops, crooks or karma.

Even though Nick Cheung is top billed, the film firmly belongs to Nicholas Tse in the title role. Recruited by Cheung to infiltrate and rat out a criminal gang, Tse is the pivotal one in the action scenes. And what action! First up is a street race where Tse has to prove he has the goods to be a getaway driver, with plenty of high powered cars. Even better is when Tse, choosing not to deal with a police roadblock, careens away amidst heavy daytime traffic and police pursuit while Dean Martin croons "White Christmas". Yes, the film takes place around Christmas time in Hong Kong, providing some holiday cheer for those who want decisive break from It's a Wonderful Life. There is also the big jewelry store heist, where Tse smashes his car through the store. Finally, there is the breathless street chase with Tse and Kwai Lun-mei pursued by the gang that they have betrayed. Tse also has the best name for a character, Ghost, Jr.

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As the police detective who works with informants, Nick Cheung's character is forced to be sidelined by the energy of Tse. Cheung's character, Don Lee, is essentially passive. Making arrangements, meeting with the "stoolies", Lee watches the action from a safe distance. It is only near the end of the film that Cheung takes action himself, when there is no else around. While one of the subplots attempts to detail Detective Lee's sense of emotional distance from the people he works with, his attempts to reconnect with his ex-wife who has forgotten him due to a traumatic injury seems out of place with the rest of the film. The attempt to humanize Lee not only disrupts the pacing of the film, but shoehorns a very contrived situation that distracts from the rest of the drama.

Better is watching the relationship unfold between Nicholas Tse and Kwai Lun-mei. In a humorous flashback, we see the two crossing paths, when he's chased by cops, and she, by a criminal gang, only to escape when the cops choose to chase the gang. Kwai's role as Dee, along with Ghost, Jr.'s sister, provide a narrative thread concerning the commodification of woman, as both are used for their financial value to others, with money used to purchase freedom.

I have to admit to being more conscious of how the action sequences were filmed after reading a series of essays by Jim Emerson. Then again, I wasn't watching in slo-mo or frame by frame, but appears that Lam and company have adhered to the classic rules of keeping the sense of space and direction consistent when cutting between characters. The action is truly fast and furious, but it doesn't look edited in a cuisinart. There is plenty of blood, bullets and bandages by the time the closing credits roll. It's also probably the only movie made where a criminal couple cases a jewelry store, and then takes a moment to have their photo taken with Santa Claus.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 27, 2011 07:15 AM