HKAFF 2011: THE KILLER WHO NEVER KILLS Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Following on from the colossal success in 2008 of Wei Te-Sheng's CAPE NO.7, the Taiwanese film industry has been invigorated into a newfound surge of populist filmmaking on a scale never-before-seen on the island. Wei has since gone on to make Taiwan's most expensive film to-date, the colossal two-part war epic SEEDIQ BALE, while other films such as gangster drama MONGA and comedy NIGHT MARKET HERO have also enjoyed swift business. This has been greatly helped by a new agreement between Taiwan and China, meaning there is no longer a limit on the number of Taiwanese films that can screen on the mainland. Ironically, some of the biggest hits of 2011 have yet to receive a release there.

Giddens' YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE has been a phenomenon both in Taiwan and here in Hong Kong, where it has recently overtaken 3D SEX AND ZEN as the year's most successful Chinese language film. This success was due in no small part to Giddens already having a huge fan base as an author of youth-oriented novels. THE KILLER WHO NEVER KILLS, directed by Jimmy Wan & Lee Fung-Bok@pple (Yup, that's his name) is based on one of a series of Giddens' novels about assassins, and actually opened a couple of weeks before APPLE. The film was doing well before it was ultimately eclipsed by its creator's own directorial debut, but it shows there was an audience primed and ready for this stuff before word-of-mouth even had a chance to kick in.

The timing of KILLER in Hong Kong could not have been planned better, arriving three weeks after APPLE to greet audiences who have finally tired of that film after their fifth or sixth viewing, hungry for something new, but in a similar vein. Unfortunately, KILLER is nothing like as good as APPLE, either in its story, charm or direction, but it does offer moments of enjoyment that can and should be appreciated.  

Ouyang Bonsai (popular Taiwanese singer Jam Hsiao in his film debut) is a young man training to be an assassin. He doesn't go into particularly specific detail about why he wants to be a killer, just that the money is good and he enjoys it. His tutelage comes from Master Tricky (Eric Tsang, who also serves as Executive Producer), who is as much a father to the lad as he is mentor, but his health is diminishing and may not be around for too much longer. Ouyang gets his assignments from a local mobster, Xiao Liu, who is part of a much larger crime syndicate run by cocky youngster Jeff "Stern Buddha" (Jeffrey Huang). 

The problem is that when it comes time to pull the trigger, Ouyang quickly realizes he doesn't have the stomach for it after all. But he's not about to give up on this lucrative gig, and instead pulls his resources and develops a plan. His aging Uncle Quan works at a mortuary, Ceng Quede (Ma Nien Hsien) is an insurance salesman, and hottie Nana (Chrissie Chau) is a whiz computer hacker. Sure, it's an incredible coincidence how useful and cooperative his friends turn out to be, but that's exactly what happens and soon enough Ouyang is able to fake his targets' deaths, create new identities for them and even arrange a life insurance payout to send them on their merry way. Everybody wins and Ouyang doesn't have blood on his hands. However, Ouyang has always pined after Xiao Li (Lin Chen Shi), his very first "kill", and when she returns, not to blackmail him MILLER'S CROSSING style, but to declare her love for him, Ouyang looks for a way out of the racket.

The first thing to acknowledge is that despite his shockingly bad haircut, Jam Hsiao makes for a pretty likable protagonist. He never as an assassin, which only makes you warm to him even more - especially when things don't go according to plan and potential clients do in fact end up dead. Lin Chen Shi is pretty adorable as Xiao Li and the film's biggest strength is when it is dealing with the relationship between these two characters. Giddens clearly, after having seen APPLE, knows how to hit the emotional beats, but he can also do comedy, which makes it all the more disappointing that KILLER isn't funnier than it should be. The elements appear to be there in the script, but Wan & Lee only rarely get their audience to laugh. For example, one of Ouyang's targets is a creepy surgeon who specializes in circumcision. Not only does Ouyang discover that the guy keeps all the removed foreskins in a gallery of test tubes, but our hero actually concedes to part company with his own in the name of undercover surveillance. This sequence has the potential for comedy gold, especially considering how events play out, but in Wan & Lee's hands it barely raises more than a smile. 

For a film littered with gangsters, explosions, shootouts and assassinations, THE KILLER WHO NEVER KILLS isn't very exciting either and lets numerous opportunities for action set pieces pass by with little or no spectacle. It's plain to see that the budget for the film wasn't especially high but the same lack of invention that allows many of the jokes to fall flat also prevents the action from ever getting off the ground - even during an explosive finale set on a ferris wheel. The performances are all fine and the script keeps things moving along at a snappy pace, selling its audiences on the high concept premise with remarkable ease, only to let the whole set-up go to waste thanks to its lacklutre direction. 

In the end, THE KILLER WHO NEVER KILLS is a nice idea that I'm sure works well in its original novelized form. Frustratingly, when translated to the big screen it is only occasionally successful, and then it's when the film is sticking close to its roots as a young adult romance, rather than in its efforts to become something else. One has to wonder what Giddens would have done with the material himself, considering how kinetic and energized his telling of high school romance was in APPLE. It's safe to say that on the basis of these two films I'm still on board with any more of Giddens' work that is, almost undoubtedly, to hit screens in the coming years, but that KILLER, much like its hero, often fails to land the killer blow. 
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