So Close (Columbia Pictures [Hong Kong] 2003)

If my previous reviews of Hong Kong movies have led you to comb the back alleys of your local Chinatown in search of video shops, or to stay up late searching the net to find a store which carries the original, uncut, subtitled DVD, or to curse my name for tempting you with visions of movies you can never find, then be at peace: this one's in theatres now.

So Close is directed by Cory Yuen, long-time fight choreographer for Jet Li and director of one of Li's best films in the "Jet Li in a robe and pigtail" genre, Fong Sai Yuk. But So Close is not a historical or traditional martial arts film, not does Jet Li appear in it.

It's a delirious contemporary action movie in which three gorgeous women -- an assassin, her computer hacker sister, and the cop on their trail -- mix it up in a city which is not quite the real Hong Kong, but Hong Kong as it might have been imagined by Ian Fleming.

This is the sort of movie where the evil high tech corporate villain has, in his evil high tech corporate headquarters, a traditional dojo with tatami mats and a rack of katanas, apparently so that if any assassins break in, he can engage them in a three-way swordfight.

The plot is fairly ridiculous, and is primarily a framework upon which to hang thrilling action scenes and touching glimpses of sisterly bonding. But it does contain one great big genre-busting surprise, which I will not reveal here. I will say that it's only genre-busting by American standards. Hong Kong action films usually contain more emotional content and variety than do their American equivalents, and are less beholden to focus groups.

Shu Qi plays an assassin, and Zhao Wei her younger sister, who is beginning to chafe at her role as the behind-the-scenes back-up.

Through a goofy sequence of events which might conceivably have made sense if it had been given more than thirty seconds of screen time, the two of them inherited a device which allows them to instantly receive satellite images from anywhere in the world, to break into any closed-circuit TV system, and digitally alter its images in real time. This is not technically a MacGuffin, because the technology plays a key role in the plot and enables at least three action sequences.

But a recent hit went sour when the man who hired them (Yasuaki Kurata, veteran of many a martial arts film, including a memorable turn as Jet Li's mentor in Fist of Legend), decided to bump them off after they did the job. Meanwhile, a very smart cop (Karen Mok) pursues them with bulldog tenacity, despite -- or because of -- a growing attraction between her and Zhao Wei.

But enough about the story. This is the first movie I've ever seen which has equally excitingly choreographed and visually stunning a) car chases, b) hand-to-hand combat, c) John Woo-esque shoot-outs, and d) sword fights. It's like Cory Yuen took all his favorite bits from every action movie he ever saw and stuffed them all into one hip, fast-paced film.

The action sequences are spectacular, especially the concluding swordfight, a bit where Shu Qi and Karen Mok fight hand-to-hand while handcuffed together, and a beautifully edited sequence in which Shu Qi uses their satellite system and a telephone to guide her sister through a car chase, while simultaneously fighting off a horde of bad guys in suits.

And there's more human feeling here then one might expect. Despite the obligatory presence of an absurdly handsome male love interest for Shu Qi, it's almost all between women. The sisters have a touching and believable bond and rivalry, and the cat and mouse game between Karen Mok and Zhao Wei vibrates with sexual tension.

Still, Yuen's admirable desire to try to make a film without dead space, that's nothing but what William Goldman calls "the good parts" -- the funny bits, the riveting drama bits, the thrilling action bits, the sexy eye candy bits -- produced a movie that never sags but never pauses long enough to really go deep.

That being said, they're terrific bits. And while man cannot live on bits alone, you don't always want a nutritiously balanced full-course meal. Sometimes you just want a nice crispy snack.

So Close may not be a great movie, but it's got great crunch.


[Rachel Brown]