PiFan 2014 Review: CAMERA Has A Good Eye But Lacks Focus

James Marsh, Asian Editor
The debut feature from James Leong showcases the director's strong visual sensibility, but with an unimaginative and wasteful screenplay, Camera fails to capitalise on its intriguing premise.

Set in a near-future Hong Kong, a gaping class and wealth divide has seen the city's older neighbourhoods fall into squalor and disrepair. While powerful corporations battle for the land in both the commercial and political spheres, the masses are left to eke out a meagre living however they can.

Ming (Sean Li) drifts between these two worlds, trading off his skills as a surveillance expert to expose the crimes and vices of the elite. Blind in one eye - the result of a clouded childhood incident that still haunts his dreams - Ming lives alone, developing miniature, high-tech surveillance cameras, and obsessing over his ever-growing archive of footage.

Undergoing a drastic experimental surgery, Ming has his dead eye removed, and replaces it with a tiny digital camera. Now he is equipped to record - and relive - every moment of his life. If only he knew what he was searching for. 

When he is hired to tail Claire (Venus Wong), the beautiful daughter of a powerful property tycoon (Calvin Poon), Ming quickly becomes obsessed with this mysterious young woman. He soon finds himself breaking his own rules, getting too close, and in way over his head.

An ambitious blend of dystopian science fiction and film noir detective thriller, Camera aims high right from the outset. A Singapore-Hong Kong co-production (and previous NAFF Project winner), the film does an impressive job of creating a believable futuristic setting on what was clearly a shoestring budget. 

By sticking largely to the dilapidated slums and crumbling tenements of this futuristic metropolis, the film avoids many of the costly elements of science fiction, employing a moody noirish aesthetic that leans towards the frustration, despair and melancholy of the underclass. The film works best when following Ming's obsessive behaviour or exploring the nightmarish memories that drive him forward, looking for answers to questions he cannot articulate.

Where the film becomes far less successful, however, is in inserting its intriguing protagonist into an engaging narrative. Leong and co-writer Ben Slater draw upon the increasingly invasive nature of today's society, in which everyone is equipped with the means to record and republish everything and everyone around them - and take it to a fascinating extreme. Camera's neo-Hong Kong is a society crippled by the paranoia of being watched, into which walks a protagonist with the ability to go completely undetected as he records everything he sees and hears. 

The potential for an insightful, politically charged sci-fi thriller based around this premise is huge, but Camera just can't make it work. As Ming and Claire are drawn closer together, and the dodgy dealings of her father are made clearer, the script becomes increasingly riddled with coincidences, contrivances and quick-fix solutions that prove largely unsatisfying. A concept that promises intrusion, exposure and fear in a crumbling hive of millions of people instead feels detached, clinical and surprisingly barren.

Sean Li does solid work as the emotionally closed-off Ming, and the film competently captures his sense of isolation - there just never feels like enough of a community for him to be removed from. Elsewhere performances are fine if unexceptional, while technically the film largely impresses.

Leong's strong visual style certainly sets him apart as a filmmaker to watch in the future. With a larger budget and richer material, there is plenty of scope for Leong to escalate his career to the highest commercial levels. As it stands, however, Camera is a frustratingly underwhelming experience, making a series of intelligent, insightful promises it ultimately cannot keep.
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