When you hear about electronic skullduggery, as in wire-taps, hidden voice activated microphones for eavesdropping, sorry – make that surveillance, and surreptitious cameras planted in offices, you might think of, if you are of a certain age, the goings on in a Washington DC office/apartment complex called Watergate, or if you like Asian films, you might think of Overheard, the 2009 police thriller from Hong Kong.
Overheard aka Sit Yan Fung Wan, was co-directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, with Chong also having written the screenplay. These are two-thirds, with Andrew Lau being the third, of the group that created the Infernal Affairs trilogy which later became the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
We start (literally the movie’s opening images) with a colony of rats, the four-footed kind, scurrying about doing their business in a garbage strewn back alley in the lees of a Hong Kong skyscraper. Within seconds, we are far above this mean street and its night crawling denizens. This places us now in a high floor in this office tower, and a group of agents who work for the Hong Kong Police Department’s Commercial Criminal Bureau (CCB) are scurrying about doing their business which is to plant eavesdropping equipment. The target firm is E & T, a firm whose stock has exhibited such erratic price swings, that the Hong Kong version of the SEC has decided to investigate it.
The cops – Johnny, played by Lau Ching-wan, Gene played by Louis Koo, and Max played by Daniel Wu, are very good at what they do. And to prove it, the film calls for the man whose office they are bugging to make an unexpected late night return to his office while these cops are still in it. The tension is remarkable, and the suspense is truly pulse-pounding.
Of course, there is a back-up plan, called Plan B, and they go undiscovered. With the bugs in place, they will come to learn that the E & T stock’s share price is going to be artificially manipulated in a day or so.
With this – Mak & Chong present us with a moral dilemma. They’re good cops but being a cop in Hong Kong means low pay, long hours, and lots of danger. And our three cops also have some private issues to deal with.
A suggestion is floated. Let’s delete this audio exchange, let’s not report it, and let’s grab a piece of this insider trading knowledge for ourselves. We’ll buy the shares in the morning, ride the price up and then we’ll sell it off later in the day for a big profit.
There’s your set up.
The cops who are part of the investigative force looking to get the goods on the bad guys of an insider trading situation, become guilty of the same crime themselves. Oh they have some reasons for their actions, and they’re likeable guys. You’ll do more than just side with them – you’ll even root for them.
If only it was that simple. There’s a gap on the tape from the deletion. They even neglected to enter the deletion onto the logs. They come under suspicion themselves. Their own phones are tapped. Tempers fray, judgments are clouded by fears and doubts. Each of them has to struggle within himself. Particularly Johnny who seems on the one hand to be at the film’s moral center, while at the same time, he carries the largest burden of guilt.
Not only are the police looking into the situation a lot closer, but so are the management of E & T, who are guilty of far more than fiscal shenanigans.
While the film does earn praise, it is far from perfect. The first two-thirds of the film are masterful, but the final third stretches credibility. Lau is excellent as usual. There’s a reason he is called the Jack Nicholson of Hong Kong. Louis Koo plays a character older than his real age, and you’ll appreciate his acting which calls for to play a rough and tough cop instead of a ladies’ man. But Wu’s Max is a bit underwritten and under-developed. On the debit side, Michael Wong is comically ludicrous as the CEO of E&T. He clearly approaches the ‘he’s so bad, he’s good’ line of demarcation.
On the female side of the cast – there’s only one character worth mentioning – she’s the wife of the supervisor of the three cops. She’s called Mandy and she’s more than just eye-candy. The actress in this role is called Jingchu Zhang (below). She does a superb job in a no-nonsense kind of role. She may not be crucial to the story, but she’s one of the underlying reasons that at least one of cops does what he does. In short, she is a bit of cinematic short hand. The screenplay doesn’t paint this story in broad black and white strokes. In particular, most of the characters, are decidedly gray.
In case you were wondering about the film’s opening shots with the rats – at one point, we watch a rat poke his head into a dark place . Where he is is obscured. We then can see only his hind-quarters and tail. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a snap. We don’t see what happens to this rat.
We can take this to mean that these cops will have bear a price for their actions, just as this multi-thematic alternate theatrical poster for Overheard tell us in an non-verbal way.
With or without the SARFT dictated ending, this is a worthwhile film that is fraught with suspense and suspicion, tension and trickery, action and fine acting, and thrills galore.
The film garnered 6 nominations for awards within the Hong Kong Film Industry, winning three. Co Directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong won the award for Film Direction from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. Check out the trailer.