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Where the Wind Blows has not had a straightforward path to the big screen. Originally set for release towards the end of 2018 under the title Theory of Ambitions, Philip Yung’s follow-up to his acclaimed thriller Port of Call (2015) failed to win approval from China’s National Radio and Television Administration. After years of appeals and re-edits, the film’s premiere was rescheduled for the 2021 Hong Kong International Film Festival, but it was abruptly pulled three days before the screening. ‘Technical reasons’ were cited, although as Variety noted in their report on the incident, ‘technical reasons’ is widely understood in mainland China as a euphemism for censorship.
Trouble with the state censor is probably to be anticipated when a film is addressing institutional corruption, although Yung may have assumed he was on safer ground by only depicting events that occurred when Hong Kong was under British rule. Where the Wind Blows tells the story of the ‘Four Great Sergeants’, the notoriously corrupt police officers who controlled organised crime in Hong Kong during the 1960s and 70s. Of the four men, Yung focuses on Lui Lok (Aaron Kwok) and Nam Kong (Tony Leung), whose very different paths to power are depicted in parallel narrative threads before they become partners in crime and ultimately rivals.
Well, that’s one story, anyway. In looking at the entire scope of these lives, it feels like Yung has tried to include almost everything that happened to them. The film spans decades, and Yung’s relentless pace makes it hard to keep track of where exactly we are in time, or which characters are important. With enough material for half-a-dozen feature films here, some potentially fascinating incidents are skimmed over far too quickly. For instance, it is astonishing that the arrest of corrupt policemen in 1977 by the Independent Commission Against Corruption led to violent public clashes between police and ICAC; this kind of material would have had Prince of the City-era Sidney Lumet rubbing his hands in glee, but Yung is done with it in a few minutes.
The whole film feels like that; a series of truncated episodes giving us tantalising glimpses of stories that never quite take shape. Narrative momentum is lost when we’re constantly having to find our bearings, or when Yung keeps stalling for black-and-white flashbacks which illuminate his characters’ formative war-time experiences. Of the two protagonists, Lui Lok gets more of a character arc, beginning as an idealistic young cadet who refuses every bribe (shades of Frank Serpico, as his integrity makes him an outcast) before hardening into a power-hungry cynic; but the traumatic backstory adds little value, and his flashbacks are too perfunctory to carry resonance. Despite an emotional monologue recalling his tragic past, Nam Kong feels underwritten, and Yung relies heavily on Leung’s smouldering charisma to sell this coolly reserved character, with his romantic pining rather self-consciously recalling In the Mood for Love (2000).
There’s no doubt that Philip Yung has style, ambition and daring to burn, and Where the Wind Blows has plenty of purely aesthetic pleasures. The lavish, detailed recreation of Hong Kong throughout various eras is impressive, and cinematographer Chin Ting-chang shoots it elegantly, often enhancing dramatic lighting with copious cigarette smoke. Yung is always looking for unexpected compositions and angles, and he pulls off a number of big set pieces with panache: Nam Kong single handedly takes down a gang of thugs in a smoke-filled warehouse; Lui Lok’s courtship of his wife is presented as an MGM-style dance number; an elaborate shootout in the rain is incongruously set to composer Ding Ke’s cover of Karen Dalton’s ‘Something on Your Mind’.
It’s just a shame we don’t have more time to settle in and enjoy these flashes of inspiration. The frantic editing is always cutting away too quickly, sowing disorientation and frustration. How much of this is down to Yung trying to cram a whole television series’ worth of incident in one feature, and how much to the demands of the Chinese censor? It’s impossible to say for sure, but having six named editors in the credits suggests a post-production process from which few films could emerge in a coherent shape.
► Where the Wind Blows arrives in UK cinemas from September 29.