Tenacious Hong Kong genre maverick Cheang Soi gets a boost to the quasi-spotlight by returning to Milkyway Image Productions not as an underling—he's worked as AD for Johnnie To—but as a feature film director with Accident, a movie produced by To and starring a roster of Milkyway regulars. This isn't quite an upgrade to the big leagues—despite filming B-quality material with the ferocity of a hungry low-budget problem solver, Cheang's last decade of work is well produced—but it is a major step towards positioning this terrific filmmaker at the international forefront of Hong Kong filmmaking.
What Accident loses in the scavenger-like need to survive featured in so many of Cheang's best films it gains in a serene, slick calm. To and Wai Ka-fai's Vengeance is making the headlines with its big-name French star and direct allusions to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le samouraï, but it is Cheang's film that has deeply ingrained the distanced chill of 1970s quasi-art house genre cinema like Coppola's The Conversation and Melville's work. Accident's hero (Louis Koo) is disciplined, silent, interiorized, bringing order to a messy world by leading a crew of hitmen who manufacture assassinations to look like accidents. He suffers from the death of his wife, which he suspects was a hit and not an accident, and whether or not this has led to his murderous career is one of the film's more slippery ambiguities. When a death of a team member sends our hero into a remarkably cool and controlled fit of doubt—was it intentional murder or an accident?—the film evolves away from the gang's mechanics of death and begins to feel more like one of those dirtier, scrappier Cheang movies has taken a couple of deep breaths and tightly clenched its fists to control its growing sense of panic.
This coolness—with Koo's stylishly bland and interiorized performance at its center—might be a problem for a filmmaker who usually makes up for his lack of dramatic nuance with an unrelenting sense of aggressive actions and manic, beastly survival tactics. Both are missing from Accident, replaced with what has to be one of the slickest and most texturally beautiful looks in recent cinema. (The only recent equivalent experiment in color and angle might be Alain Resnais' masterpiece Wild Grass. Accident's seemingly genre-clunky ellipses actually often suggest the mysterious branching possibilities of Resnais rather than an unconvincing scenario.) The film feels cool but is hot to look at; Cheang can't voraciously pursue in the way he has in the past, and instead makes the most of the production values and the script's stasis by taking on subtly unusual points of view, making every angle a little special, and having rich-hued color work dance across the wide Milkyway compositions. The life that so many Cheang film's struggle so hard to keep going turns ossifies here in chic paranoia, but in an all together vivid and elaborately textured film. By the time this splendor is shocked by the brutality of the real world at the end of the film it is a welcome wake up call to the messy ugliness that surrounds a life so fooled by a sense of control.