智齒 (Ji Chi)
Hong Kong, 2021, 118’, Cantonese
Directed by: Soi Cheang
Script: Au Kin-yee, Shum Kwan-sin (based on a novel by Lei Mi)
Photography (b&w): Cheng Siu-keung
Editing: David Richardson
Art Direction: Kenneth Mak
Music: Kenji Kawai
Producers: Wilson Yip. Paco Wong
Cast: Lam Ka-tung (Cham Lau), Cya Liu (Wong To), Mason Lee (Will Ren), Ikeuchi Hiroyuki (Yamada Akira), Fish Liew (Coco), Hugo Ng (Chief), Sammy Sum (Spark), Hanna Tam (Will’s wife), Iris Lam (Cham’s wife)
Date of First Release in Territory: TBA
Frenetic and utterly squalid, Limbo takes the Hong Kong thriller and re-envisages it in an urban hellscape strewn with trash and falling into decay. Director Soi Cheang has explored shockingly filthy cinema before – the animalistic hit man in his film Dog Bite Dog (2006) found home in a rubbish dump – but that’s little match for the parade of grotesquerie he rolls out this time.
Murder mystery emerges in the black and white feature as a hand is found on a hillside. As was the case with another grisly find a fortnight earlier, it’s a woman’s left hand wrapped in newspaper from two years earlier. Hard-edged and bitter Crime Unit officer Cham Lau (Lam Ka-tung) recognises the same fetid smell of garbage on the severed limb, but there’s little else to go off. After it emerges that it’s the hand of a prostitute, while the first was chopped off a missing ex-prisoner, Cham hits the streets to investigate with strait-laced new partner Will Ren (Mason Lee) in tow.
After digging through piles of waste in an alley, Cham chances across young woman Wong To (Cya Liu) at a social security office. Just released from prison, Wong had earlier driven into Cham’s wife, putting her in critical condition and killing Cham’s unborn child, and the cop is still furious. When Wong goes on to steal a car and delivers it to a gang, Cham spots her and pursues like a madman. And later, as she tries to make amends for his losses, he first uses her to identify criminals at a police station – placing her in immense danger as a result – and then has her help find leads on the hands case after a third victim turns up.
With Limbo, Cheang follows on from the string of pictures that culminated in Dog Bite Dog, while applying the taut storytelling and discipline shown in his later thriller Accident (2009). Working once again with screenwriter Au Kin-yee, who penned his early film Diamond Hill (2000), Cheang revisits a cinema that brought together oppressive atmospherics and harsh genre leanings, yet curiously also suggested hopes for family with regular appearances of pregnant women.
Limbo leaps at outdoing Dog Bite Dog’s sordidness from the opening scenes. Streets and alleyways are heaped with garbage and the buildings around them are decrepit, the cityscape seemingly falling into a great malaise. As a sheer feat of production design, the picture is extraordinary, and the often cluttered monochrome visuals – with a double-vision effect thrown in at key moments – push up the relentlessly off-kilter feel. While the setting is never identified as Hong Kong (Cham and his colleagues work for the fictitious Eastern District Police Force), the visualisation of local sights being changed beyond recognition could still be unsettling to Hong Kong viewers.
Cheang’s players appear to have been through a tough time in realising their parts, whether struggling in locations with rubbish brought in by the truckload or soaked for a dramatic rainstorm climax. Lam Ka-tung pushes his performance with an intense portrayal of his cop, but it’s Cya Liu who makes the most painful impression as a woman seeking redemption and being horribly tortured and abused in return. As Limbo hurtles to a close with a gruelling sequence of brutal violence, their performances and Cheang’s pummelling visions of filth and savagery could leave even hardened thriller audiences feeling stunned and drained.
Soi Cheang worked as an assistant director for the likes of filmmakers Ringo Lam, Andrew Lau and Wilson Yip before his directorial debut in 1999. Cheang’s first movies were shot on digital video before he moved to 35mm with Diamond Hill in 2000. Since then he has made a name for himself in horror (Horror Hotline... Big Head Monster, New Blood), thrillers (Love Battlefield, Dog Bite Dog, Accident) and fantasy epics (The Monkey King). Cheang has also been active as a producer.
1999 – Our Last Day
2000 – Diamond Hill
2001 – Horror Hotline... Big Head Monster
2002 – New Blood
2004 – Love Battlefield
2006 – Dog Bite Dog
2009 – Accident
2012 – Motorway
2014 – The Monkey King
2021 – Limbo