The Santa Barbara Film Festival is always good for some far out Asian cinema. A late addition to this year’s programme was the Hong Kong thriller Accident. Produced by legend Johnny To and directed by Pou-soi Cheang, it’s a sort of strange throwback to both a stylish 80s kind of thriller and to the grubby US cinema of paranoia of the 70s, as well as being stylish, moody Hong Kong through and through.
The accidents of the title are in fact fiendishly devised murder set-ups: the movie opens in a busy midday street where through a finely-tuned but entirely natural-seeming series of events a driver gets out of his car and is rained down upon by large amounts of broken window. It turns out he is a Triad boss, and it turns out that a few of the crowd whom we’ve seen watching are a gang who orchestrate such events.
For the next hit, we see something of the planning process. The leader, Brain (Louis Koo), drives them hard (a foxy young woman, a large young man – Fatty – and a doddering older one, Uncle) until they figure out how to electrocute a cripple on the tram lines. It is all to the cinematic good that they realise they must do it in the rain. Again, Brain is exacting; evenings pass with several aborts as the timing is off or the rain doesn’t come, but when conditions are correct, it makes for a rather remarkable sequence (it’s raining really hard). The hit completed, an out-of-control bus heads straight for Brain. Is this also an accident? He really doesn’t think so..
The gang dissolves and Brain sets out to find out who set him up. He’s a quiet, intensely cautious (carefully arranged mirrors allow him to see every part of his apartment) and melancholy, intermittently fondling the broken watch of a woman we saw fly through a car window at the start (it’s a Tag Hauer, a brand Koo promotes). It’s not exactly that he’s doing all this in memory of her, but we get the impression he couldn’t do anything else. The film takes much of its pace from his careful methodical manner, setting things up slowly and letting them unwind naturally. So Brain begins spying on a large insurance building with his monocular, and he moves into the peeling 70s apartment below his suspect, paints a floorplan on the ceiling and sits listening to his bugs on headphones day and night. There’s plenty of opportunity for stylish 80s shadows and neon, simple but effective piano and synth soundtrack music, quiet noble suffering in close-up (being sad about his dead wife is enough to earn it; doesn’t seem like an especially noble guy otherwise) and, finally, fear and panic as he thinks he’s been rumbled.
With such an outrageous premise and such far-fetched but convincing accidents, the fact that the denouement involves an unexpected eclipse of the sun is not really a problem (and executed with some beauty). Somewhat more of a problem is that it’s hard to care too much, and the accidents are so ingenious and well-orchestrated that a few more wouldn’t have gone amiss, but the movie star soulfulness is bearable, the paranoia well-wound and the slow pacing a welcome surprise, and as stylish fripperies go it serves its purpose fully.