Mayhem All the Way

In Time and Tide, Tsui Hark delivers a plotless wonder

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Time and Tide

Opens June 22 at the Tivoli.

Time and Tide -- the latest action picture from producer/director Tsui Hark, one of the world's great entertainers -- is a compendium of many of the best (and a few of the worst) traits of Hong Kong action cinema. It's relentlessly visceral, making you feel as if you've been shot from a cannon; on the other hand, you may not be able to figure out where the cannon is, or why you were shot out of it, or where you're heading.

After a snazzy James Bond-ish credit sequence, Time and Tide seems to set itself up in imitation of Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express: In voiceover illustrated by a montage of off-kilter shots, protagonist Tyler (Nicholas Tse of Gen-X Cops) recalls a one-night stand with Jo (Cathy Tsui) -- who turns out to be an undercover cop ... and a lesbian ... and (as a result of their encounter) pregnant. Being a nice guy, he tries to take responsibility, but Jo won't give him a chance. In hopes of making enough money to help her out, he takes a job with a somewhat shady security company run by Uncle Ji (Anthony Wong). Patrolling a banquet, Tyler saves a wealthy triad leader but runs afoul of Uncle Ji; he also runs into Jack (Wu Bai), the triad leader's pregnant daughter's boyfriend, with whom he has bonded in an earlier scene that we haven't mentioned because by this point (even on a second viewing) we were completely confused.

Jack apparently used to be a drug runner in South America, according to a flashback that only makes things harder to keep straight. Was Tyler somewhere in the flashback? Probably not, but how else to explain how the two of them forge a tight bond, even though they are soon working for opposite sides -- or so it appears -- of what may or may not be a gang war?

Obviously the only way to approach Time and Tide is not to worry about the plot, which is the most impenetrable thicket of unresolved threads since Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes of Time. Tsui denies being influenced by Wong, but how else can we explain why one of the few Hong Kong directors to actually care about well-constructed scripts -- as in his Peking Opera Blues, The Lovers, The Blade and even the wacky comedy The Chinese Feast -- has suddenly come up with such an incomprehensible story?

All of this is beside the point, in the long run. Time and Tide is utterly unconcerned with making sense: As with many of the best Hong Kong movies, its main goal is to overwhelm you with immediate physical pleasure. It's like a big friendly dog that so wants your love it simply jumps up and knocks you over while its master shoots a syringe full of adrenaline straight into your jugular vein.

So after the intermittent action of the first half, the nonstop action of the second half only heightens the effect. The two factions chase each other around a shabby apartment building, shooting at each other while swinging over the courtyard on fire hoses and electrical wires. It's as though the acrobatic swordplay from a martial-arts movie had been translated into (slightly) more realistic modern terms with machine guns instead of swords.

The final 45 minutes or so is reminiscent of the hospital shootout from Hard Boiled, the final Hong Kong film by Tsui's former collaborator John Woo. There is almost no let-up as the mayhem gleefully escalates and the concepts grow ever more insane. Where else but in a Hong Kong movie would an action sequence climax with a pregnant woman squeezing off shots between contractions to protect the guy delivering her baby from the bad guys popping up behind him?

This is not Tsui's best film by a substantial margin, but it's immense fun. Its sheer outrageousness proves that, even after producing or directing 50 films in 20 years, this master filmmaker and his action choreographers haven't begun to lose their energy or inventiveness.

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