With Hong Kong popular tastes in cinema as unpredictable as ever, Fung Chih-chiang has applied a healthy dose of experimentation to his first feature, the quirky comedy The Bounty. As yet unreleased in Hong Kong, Fung's picture veers away from current comedy formulas in favour of an oddball and often laid-back vibe. While settings, costumes, pacing and performances may come out of left field, Fung also stirs in identifiably local filmmaking touches to make sure familiar Hong Kong flavours are never too far away.
Chapman To is top billed as Cho, a bounty hunter for whom no job is too small. As he points out at the start, his line of work is one that puts him in touch with all manner of strange people, and that's very much in evidence in his newest case. When a reward is placed for the capture of fugitive Lee Kin-fai, who's said to be hiding on an island off Hong Kong, Cho heads to the quiet locale and takes a room at a small hotel, the Lazy Inn, run by housekeeper and astrology columnist Linda (Fiona Sit) and an intensely meddlesome manager (Alex Man).
Obstructing Cho's attempts at finding his target is the general weirdness of the locals. The lodge's manager and Linda appear to be father and daughter, though the man's denials cloud the situation; word gets out that Lee, wherever he is, has fallen for Linda; and the small-time hoodlums of the local Biting Sugar Cane Gang are making things difficult with their triad-style theatrics. Soon enough, it seems Cho doesn't just need to catch his man, but also has to clear up family woes and tackle island crime as well.
In The Bounty, Fung opts for something quite unlike contemporary Hong Kong comedy style, and it's not just in the costuming, set design and even credits that all keep bringing to mind westerns. Whereas today's Hong Kong comedy approach is often to shoot for loud, fast-paced gags and highlight wordplay, pop-culture references and obvious parody, Fung instead presents a gently entertaining cinema of the kooky and the surreal - something more in line with, say, the low-key comedy of the 2008 Japanese film Fine, Totally Fine. Fung also draws on older local cinema tradition by channelling the deadpan comic delivery of local film legend Michael Hui (who himself takes a cameo role in The Bounty), and threads in earnest melodrama replete with classic Hong Kong movie motifs like an honourable bad guy trying to help a blind woman. And when he brings black comedy into his film landscape, Fung writes for appeal both at home and abroad: one section on the hotel staff watching out for suicides not only allows for silly spying gags, but also has a local current affairs link too.
Fung also goes against the grain in the film's two-act structure, first covering the hunt for the fugitive before shifting gear to tackle turmoil in its aftermath. Both acts centre on the bounty hunter's island escapades, and Chapman To holds things together with a restrained, straight-faced charm and even a few goofy action sequences. Fiona Sit nabs a broader range of set pieces, from kooky tics to tearful appeals, and she has fine onscreen chemistry with To, whom she's paired with in several new films. Veteran actor Alex Man, in a rare big-screen appearance, is meanwhile tasked with a significant narrative arc related to a missing daughter, and his story helps underscore a key theme in The Bounty: of people running away from the past and not facing up to it. Amid all the eccentricity of his directing debut, it's in themes like this that Fung makes The Bounty more than just a comic exercise in the bizarre.