The hopes one places in films can be a strange thing: that certain something, whatever it may be, that was special once, twice, or many times about the work of an actor, a director, a genre—how that instills the yearning for that very thing to be reconstituted again anew. (And yet, of course, the precariousness of this desire; thus the baffling response, for example, that South Korean director Hong Sang-soo keeps doing the same old thing.)
I love Hong Kong director Cheang Soi, whom I have written about before, an action-thriller auteur of unique vision and energy. His international presence and reputation were upgraded over the last few years with a two-film stint at Johnnie To's Milkyway Image company—Accident and Motorway—as his style of gritty pursuit was sandpapered to the sleek, honed feel of To and Wai Ka-fai's company. And then he leapt even further: into a ginormous mainland action extravaganza based on the ubiquitous Monkey King legend. Pumped full of green screens, special effects of erratic quality, Donnie Yen in full monkey suit, and a celestial Chow Yun-fat as the emperor of heaven, the film quite literally replaced nearly all that moved and excited me about this filmmaker with the stilted artifice of computer ambitions. (Remarkably, it retained some strong thematic echoes with Cheang's earlier work, but the exhaustingly overspent result proves how consistency of themes alone do not make a good artist.)
And so we come to his next film, Kill Zone 2, the sequel to a movie I had no idea existed. While Cheang has now moved on to follow-ups to The Monkey King, I can happily report that for this special film, the director is back from the wilderness of modern Chinese super productions. Not that Kill Zone 2 skimps on vision; if anything, Cheang has an incredibly rare sense of scope and this callused fighting film feels far more expansive than most globetrotting Hollywood actioners. This grand canvas is spawned from the filmmaker's dedication to stories of human tenacity: Kill Zone 2 feels like it hurtles from one location to another, ping ponging through crosscutting here to there, driving, boating, doing anything, shark-like, to keep moving so that its characters can survive.
Survival is Cheang's great theme and here he overloads it: a villain in Hong Kong (Louis Koo stylized as an anime metrosexual goth), dying of a rare heart disease, needs to steal the heart of his brother, and uses a drug addicted undercover cop (Wu Jing) for the kidnapping. When that goes sour and the agent's identity is revealed—in a sprawling sequence raining bullets at a public boat depot—the cop is sent to a jail in Thailand that is secretly being used to imprison promising donors for illegal organ trade. But guess who is a guard there? Tony Jaa. And guess who's blood type his leukemia-suffering daughter matches? That of the Hong Kong cop. But they don't know that yet, and the two fight one another again and again as Wu Jing tries to escape and Jaa's naive guard, oblivious to his prison's cruelties, hits back hard. The two are equal protagonists in this film, and while their intertwined fates are separated at first by country, cell phones link everyone, Cheang being one of the only filmmakers who understands the dramatic possibilities of the phone, where missed calls, phone tracing, sent images, emojis and more criss-cross good guy and bad, country to country, tying the action together and flinging it in new directions.
If that seems confusing, you haven't even seen it in action, which skips from prison in Thailand back to copwork in Hong Kong (featuring an appreciably gruff and dedicated Simon Yam) for Cheang to forge an essentially religious network of coincidences and fated connections as bodies are exchanged, swapped, paired, hostaged, kidnapped and traded. The body is all in this film, the locus for disease but also for strength. With martial arts experts Wu Jing, Jaa, and Zhang Jin (as the dapper evil prison warden), Kill Zone 2 jumps from sentimental pining for health to flying kicks and head crushing martial arts brawls, many of which, including a madly tumultuous prison riot culminating in a struggle for a cell phone call for freedom, and a final ménage à trois fight to the death set to Vivaldi's Four Seasons, string gasping moment after gasping moment into scherzos of brute force and desperate physical perseverance. The film certainly milks a bit too much from Jaa's po-faced good-fathering of his dying daughter, but in sidelong moments and unexpected reversals worthy of the film's terrific fights, Cheang provides grace notes of sorrow and the pure vitality of coincidence to power the film's pathos.
"If you believe, you can keep going. God will not toy with us," Simon Yam intones, after being beaten, stabbed, and beaten again. Everyone, hero and villain, gets kicked to absolute shit in this movie, if not additionally stabbed and/or shot. If you thought American action heroes absorb an irrational level of violence you've never seen a film by Cheang Soi, whose men are pushed to the edge and beyond, testing both body and the will to stay alive. Suffice to say, Kill Zone 2 is a clobbering return to form for the maestro of brute survival.