We’ve missed the primal scream that is Soi Cheang’s cinema. The Hong Kong director’s frenzied genre tales of survival—horror films, cop movies, thrillers, action movies—have been waylaid by his big budget success in the CGI-driven Monkey King franchise (three entries and counting) on the Mainland, movies of varying quality but certainly scrubbed of the extraordinary desperation and exalting feats of tactile physical endurance that characterize such films as Dog Bite Dog (2006), Motorway (2012), and SPL2: A Time for Consequences (2015). With Limbo, the story of a wild, grieving cop (Lam Ka Tung), his young superior (Mason Lee), and an ex-convict, former substance abuser (an extraordinary Liu Cya) who become embroiled in the search for a serial killer in Hong Kong, Cheang is back and more fierce than ever.
More than that, the director practically visually reinvents the island city: In harsh, high-contrast black and white images Hong Kong is a garbage-strewn dystopia, as if Escape from New York’s desolate urban wasteland wasn’t the future but the present. Barring a few scenes at police headquarters and a hospital, the mise-en-scène seems to get more dilapidated and deplorable by the minute. The vividly bleak look, created by key collaborators of Johnnie To, cinematographer Cheng Siu Keung and editor David Richardson, along with production designer Kwok Keung Mak, is fitting for a film in which the victims of the crimes are “a call girl, an ex-con, and a drug addict…—all social outcasts,” as the police disparagingly note. Outcasts managing to survive under dire circumstances are hallmarks of Cheang’s cinema, and in the Hong Kong of Limbo they are left with nowhere to go and little to do but help or hurt each other. The killer is an illegal immigrant with mental health issues only capable of preying on those already beaten down by life, and the true hero is neither of the cops (Lam plays a violent, grief-wracked wreck; and Lee an ineffective officer hilariously plagued with a toothache throughout) but rather Liu Cya’s frantic ex-con. Driven nearly out of her mind with guilt over accidentally killing the wife of the older detective, she submits to being their informant to find the killer, and in doing so masochistically subjects herself to abject terror and abuse from cops and criminals alike. Yet she continues to fight back with every ounce of her being. Giving an astoundingly arduous and exhausting performance, Liu’s character suffers all the grievous abuse and indignities of a Lars von Trier heroine, but one rooted in a social reality exploded into extreme physical expressionism.
“You want me to die?” she asks Lam’s vengeful cop, who grimly nods in the affirmative. Stumbling, bedraggled, bloody and sullied, weeping and haggard, as Liu makes her way through the story she personifies not only the treatment of Hong Kong’s “outcasts,” but also their extreme will to live, their tenacity and spirit. “Why do you treat me like this,” she wails. “I don’t want to die.” This is the cry of the spirit of the film, savagely against being dismissed and persecuted, and proclaiming her anguished drive to live. Meanwhile, a substance abuser tells the cops that, “We’re not as crazy as you. We are rubbish, so what? In this world, he’s the only one who cares,” referring to the killer, who she refuses to give up. He treats her kindly because she has a severed hand, a motif that haunts him and his crimes. This world is grim; the cops are not forces of moral good—they’re part solving the crime, part covering their asses, and part after revenge—and they only descend further. Each half of the film devolves from nocturnal investigation into a slum raid, chase, and brutal fight, frenetic and unflinching attempts by the isolated cops to find the killer, and by the woman to simply survive what the world is throwing at her.
Throughout, garbage, mannequin limbs, and sluicing rain overwhelm the caustic images, a topography of waste in a city on the verge of ruin. Limbo is the kind of film that cuts from a rape to a flat-lining monitor in a hospital to the city skyline, a stark condemnation of an ugly state of the world. Tough to take, the film’s voracious mixture of moral bleakness and human perseverance is nevertheless impossible to ignore. Even if he may not like what he finds there, let’s hope Soi Cheang stays in Hong Kong a while longer.