Proceeding both from the “Serial Killer thriller” wave initiated by the success of David Fincher’s Se7en, and from the horror phase in Asian cinema fueled by the international fame of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, Chen Kuo-Fu’s Double Vision was co-produced by Columbia and is one of those rare Asian films featuring a well-known American actor in a prominent role. In this case it is David Morse, a consistently excellent character actor, who is paired up with the great Tony Leung Ka-Fai. They play a disenchanted FBI agent and a Taiwan cop with family issues respectively, the former being sent to Taipei to help the ill-equipped local police investigate a series of strange murders. All the victims have been found drowned without the presence of water, burnt without trace of fire, or even gutted without anyone’s intervention ; furthermore, traces of a strange fungus have been found in their brain. Soon it appears that the killer is carrying out an ancient Taoist ritual that is supposed to give him immortality.
With its pair of mismatched investigators, sticky atmosphere, gruesome murders and mind-blowing endgame, Double Vision can simply not escape the Se7en comparison. But Chen Kuo-Fu’s script (co-written with Su Chao-Pin of Reign of Assassins) knows that and plays on the conventions set up by David Fincher’s masterpiece, while at the same time radically breaking free from them. Certainly, Chen’s direction is as stylishly atmospheric and narratively gripping as Fincher’s, and Double Vision is a classy affair throughout, beautifully shot by the great Arthur Wong (whose credits are too numerous and prestigious to even selectively list) superbly scored by Lee Sin-Yun and paced at a happy medium between countdown tension and thoughtful contemplation. The film doesn’t single-mindedly follow the murder investigation, taking time to delve into the tense family life and conflicted professional relationships of Tony Leung’s character. It is truly a beautifully-written character, and Leung’s performance is subtle, affecting and charismatic. He is surrounded with an equally excellent Asian cast, from Rene Liu as his wife (she deservedly won a Hong Kong film award for her performance) to Leon Dai as a colleague who’s often the voice of reason.
But the film really blossoms when David Morse’s character comes into play. While the “fish out of water” act is refreshingly down-played when it comes to Morse’s ignorance of Taiwanese customs, the opposition between a pragmatic, down-to-earth FBI agent and a Taiwanese cop who doesn’t rule out paranormal intervention, is a much more interesting and fresh tension than the usual “fast-talking meets kung fu” or “brutality meets spirituality” we get whenever an American is paired with an Asian in a film. The chemistry between David Morse and Tony Leung Ka-Fai is perfect, and their growing friendship is subtly brought about ; one would almost be content to watch the two of them on a mundane case, so interesting is the dynamic they share.
The case they’re working on however, is far from mundane, and while it’s difficult to delve into it without going into spoiler territory, let’s just say its resolution is a ballsy tour-de-force of oniric, hallucinatory power. Some have argued that the film’s tight storytelling leaves way to nonsense in these final scenes, and that it becomes difficult to make head or tails of what is reality and what is illusion. It’s not untrue on a first viewing : while visually impressive, this resolution takes the viewer aback and just about manages no to lose him thanks to a very moving coda. But a second viewing reveals how completely logical and yet superbly poetic this resolution is.
Long Story Short : An impressive thriller, at once thoughtful and visceral, moving and sombre, anchored in great performances and masterfully directed. ****1/2