I’m not quite sure what to make of SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, a Chinese-Hong Kong martial arts (and guns) action film that’s a “sequel in name only” to Wilson Yip’s SPL. Partly that’s due to my lack of familiarity with the genre; outside of a couple Ong Bak and Raid films, my knowledge of this brand of action films is centred largely on the works of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. SPL 2 feels different to the martial arts films I’m accustomed to – more experimental, more ambitious, less coherent – but it’s entirely possible that’s congruent with the contemporary conventions of the genre.
I’ll get back to SPL 2’s ambition and experimentation, but beyond that I had a lot of difficulty understanding what was even going on within the film. As in The Raid 2: Berandal, the gunplay and flying kicks are interwoven into an intricate narrative tapestry – somewhere between a masculine melodrama and a Kurosawa samurai epic – that’s an order of magnitude trickier to follow than the machinations of, say, Police Story. Rather than attempt to offer a synopsis myself, here’s how the Australian DVD blurb puts it:
“Police officer, Kit (Wu Jing) has gone undercover to catch Mr. Hung (Louis Koo), the mastermind of a major crime syndicate. But when his cover is blown, he ends up in a Thai prison – which is actually a front for Mr. Hung’s organ trafficking business.
Chai (Tony Jaa) has taken a job in the same prison as a guard, to raise money for his sick daughter. He is assigned to keep an eye on Kit, and in a twist of fate, discovers that he is the perfect fit as a bone marrow donor for Chai’s daughter. Determined to keep Kit alive, Chai must square off against the warden (Zhang Jin) and everyone else who wants Kit out of the way.
When Mr Hung shows up in Thailand for a transplant operation to save his own life, the stage is set for an epic showdown!”
That sounds like a reasonable enough storyline – a tad complicated, perhaps overly reliant on coincidences – but coherent, at least. Except, as is the blurb writers’ wont, this erases a good chunk of the convolutions running through SPL 2’s screenplay (from Wong Ying and Jill Leung). For instance, it omits two semi-major characters – Mr Hung’s brother – and intended heart donor – Hung (Jun Kung) and Kit’s uncle and supervisor (Simon Yam), who drives much of the plot in his insistence on rescuing his nephew. And that doesn’t even get into all the other stuff going on: an extended subplot about a garbage man finding a lost phone, visions of CGI wolves, and more.
So I spent a good deal of SPL 2’s runtime simply confused as to what, precisely, was going on. That’s partly explained by the language barrier. Take the first scene where Jing and Jaa’s characters encounter one another. Kit has just been shanghaied into the aforementioned corrupt prison, where he faces the (figurative) moustache twirling of Zhang Jin’s immaculately besuited warden, who gloats about changing his identity to that of a convicted criminal. Kit attempts to escape and is thwarted by Chai in an impressive bit of hand-to-hand combat (featuring more than a few showers of broken glass).
My initial confusion surrounding this scene was resolved when Kit is subsequently released into the prison population, crying out desperately in Cantonese and, then, English, that he’s a cop – to the unreceptive ears of the Thai prisoners. I didn’t twig until sometime after finishing the film what this implied – that Chai, as a Thai speaker, wasn’t aware of the content of the conversation between Kit and the warden, and is therefore, to his eyes, just detaining an unruly convict. This is an important distinction because, otherwise, it seems like you’ve got one of your heroes knowingly kicking the ass out of an undercover police officer.
Though maybe that isn’t a problem. While SPL 2 had, up ‘til this point, gone out of its way to establish Chai as a kind-hearted good guy with only his daughter’s best interests at heart, muddling his morality by positioning him as a cog in a corrupt organisation complicates things in the best of ways. The martial arts action films I’m used to tend to rely on distinct archetypes – hero, antihero or villain – that don’t necessarily gel with the realities of real life. That’s intentional to an extent, as reality is thinned by any premise requiring preternaturally talented martial artists, but the idea of a fundamentally good guy who ends up doing bad things to support his daughter? That’s both more interesting and a fair margin closer to ‘real.’
Much of SPL 2 seems to be set up to blur such distinct boundaries. Linguistic uncertainty is a deliberate feature of the screenplay. Characters converse in Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, English and even emoji. Clarity of meaning – like the distinction between good and evil – is lost, or at least obscured, in translation. Chai is a doting father, but he’s also complicit in supporting an evil organisation – knowingly or otherwise – because you gotta earn a dime somehow. Kit is a principled, well-intentioned police officer, but he’s also a violent junkie due to the challenges of working undercover. Neither is precisely heroic, nor do they reach antihero levels – they’re in that awkward space in between we all inhabit.
Combined with the labyrinthine plot, though, it’s a little overwhelming. In genre cinema, I appreciate some simplistic moral certitude as a point of reference. Thankfully, if you’re looking for villains, SPL 2 delivers, with both the impeccably dressed warden and his boss, the spectacled Mr Hung, offering unabashed evil as fixtures in an organ trafficking organisation that snatches innocent – even pregnant! – people off the street and sells their bits for profit.
The choice of organ trafficking as the industry du jour emphasises SPL 2’s subcutaneous politics; rather than gun trafficking or drug dealing, this storyline places the body front and centre of its illicit trade. Mr Hung’s organisation profits directly from the bodies of everyday people, sliced open to benefit those rich enough to afford entry into the organ trade. The traditional loyalties of criminal organisations – like family – are rejected outright, as realised vividly in Mr Hung’s plans to harvest his own brother’s heart.
Bodies and broken and dismembered to serve the capitalist free market. It’s fitting, then, that the only opposition offered is bodily: the interplay of limbs found in the film’s frequent martial acts action sequences. It’s also no accident that director Cheang Pou-Soi emphasises the physical toil and, often, gore associated with violence – bodies are the real currency here, and their pain and mutilation is concomitant with that. (All of this is, inevitably, complicated by the restlessness of the film – for example, that CGI wolf I mentioned provides a mythic counterpoint to all that bodily exertion. Unpacking all this is beyond my abilities, I think…)
The blurring of lines I discussed earlier is clarified by SPL 2’s set design. With the occasional exception – such as the hospital where Chai’s daughter convalesces – the locations visited are provinces of Mr Hung’s organisation. They fall into two visually distinct categories, defined variously by ultra-modernist architecture – like the penthouse suite in which the action climax occurs, which reminded me of Johnnie To’s Office – or crude brutalism: the ugly concrete prison, or the blood-splattered warehouse where torture and butchery occurs on Hung’s command. Just as the dialogue’s insistence on different tongues brings the uncertainty of meaning into focus, these sets contrast the façades and gruesome truths of corporate success – taken to grotesque extremes.
I fear that I’m starting to misrepresent SPL 2 as an arty film, which again – I don’t know what to make of this thing. It’s not not arty, but it is at its core an action film, unafraid to embrace hyperbole to occasionally silly extremes (there’s a scene involving a chain and a long drop that is just flagrantly unbelievable in that martial-arts-movie kinda way). It’s a film about people punching and kicking one another to get their way, and the punching and kicking is undeniably impressively shot. There’s a digitally-composited, multi-character long shot in the prison mid-film that’s on par with anything in The Raid or its sequel, for example.
The cinematography is similarly ambitious throughout, actually. Director of photography Kenny Tse seems to be using every technique he knows in the film, ranging from exaggerated fish eye lens to extreme colour filters to sweeping camera movements. It’s invariably visually interesting, which is helpful if, like me, you’re befuddled by the plot …or simply anxious for the next action sequence. Those are great, too – swiftly edited without ever sacrificing the rhythm of the fight.
Is SPL 2 a great film commenting on the insidious clutches of capitalism and the difficulty of resisting it? Is it an interrogation of the difficulty of communication in a modern world? Is it just a silly action film with an equally silly plot and a film critic reading far too much into things? I’m not sure! Like I said, I’ve got no idea what to make of this thing. So here’s a star rating, but one I have a practically zero confidence in: