Benny Chan’s DIVERGENCE proceeds directly from the overwhelming and international success of the INFERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy. It is not a cash-in, mind you : the kinship here is mainly to be seen in the tight storytelling refusing to be overly explanatory, the cold urban aesthetics and the stellar cast. The Hong-Kong superstar Aaron Kwok plays Suen, a cop whose girlfriend disappeared 10 years ago, and who’s never stopped looking for her, including at the morgue. He has been assigned to the protection of a key witness in the high-stakes trial of a corrupt businessman. The businessman’s lawyer (portrayed by Ekin Cheng) happens to be married to a woman looking remarkably like his long-lost girlfriend. That, coupled with the fact that the witness gets killed by a hitman called Coke (played by Daniel Wu), triggers a chain of events that put Suen’s mental and physical health to the test.
Of the three top-billed actors, Aaron Kwok’s cop Suen is the only real leading role, the other two being more of supporting roles. Contrary to what the plot synopsis might lead you to believe, this is not a choral film interweaving the destinies of three characters ; not in a satisfying or efficient way, at least. The role of the “Bereaved cop debilitatingly haunted by the past but still fiercely invested in his job” has become a kind of gauntlett for any actor looking to prove his mettle and/or score a Hong Kong Film Awards nomination, the latest example being Leon Lai in Dante Lam’s FIRE OF CONSCIENCE (2010). Likewise, Daniel Wu’s Coke is the “Loose cannon hitman” character, best exemplified by Andy Lau in Johnnie To’s FULLTIME KILLER ; and just as well, Ekin Cheng’s “Cold but conflicted lawyer” is no great innovation either.
But while DIVERGENCE is fairly cookie-cutter in the way its characters epitomize well-worn Hong Kong cinema clichés, the interesting thing is the direction it takes with those characters. “Nothing is what it seems” is a very basic concept for a film to explore, but the truth is there are countless ways of illustrating it cleverly, and Benny Chan’s film finds one. Benny Chan is an somewhat inconsistent director who’s capable of the worst (GEN-X-COPS, GEN-Y-COPS, CITY UNDER SIEGE…), the best (CONNECTED, NEW POLICE STORY…) and the in-between (HEROIC DUO, JACKIE CHAN’S WHO AM I?…). DIVERGENCE sits squarely in the latter category : its clever twists and tight narrative are offset by some jarring ellipses and tonal shifts (not least because of the unbelievably saccharinne romantic flashbacks), its clever choral structure harmed by Aaron Kwok’s involuntarily goofy performance and Ekin Cheng’s sleepwalking (Daniel Wu, arguably the better actor of the three, is also the one with the least to do).
But it’s a Benny Chan film, which means you’re sure to find at least a few thrilling and stylish action sequences. A breathless foot chase through the streets of Hong Kong ends in a dizzying fist fight between Wu and Kwok, the latter fighting while choking because of a plastic bag wrapped around his head by the former. It’s all shot with fluidity and, yes, grace, proving that as far as action goes, Benny Chan is the cream of the crop, especially when compared to the shaky-cam-happy, quick-cut-abusing standards of today’s Hollywood action scenes.
Long Story Short : A rather clever thriller with somewhat weak performances, DIVERGENCE never truly gels, but has enough style and thrills to make it seem like it does. **1/2