FATAL CONTACT (2006) review

fatal-contact-2006-2

In 2005, after a few false starts, Wushu champion Jacky Wu Jing finally made a dent in Hong Kong cinema by playing Sammo Hung’s creepy, deadly henchman in the superlative S.P.L.. The following year he was given the second lead role of his young career by director Dennis Law, a former property developper who had produced Johnnie To’s Election diptych. Wu Jing plays Kong, a martial arts champion from China’s national Wushu team, who’s spotted by shady triad types led by Ma (Eddie Cheung Siu Fai) during a tour of performance in Hong Kong. As they offer him to fight for them in underground boxing matches, he initially refuses but ends up accepting when pushed by the lovely Siu Tin (Miki Yeung), who also offers to act as his agent. Assigned to assist them is Captain (Ronald Cheng), a down on his luck triad goon who’s also well-versed in martial arts and starts coaching the naïve Kong. The fact is that Kong is first and foremost a showman, and as he’s faced with opponents of escalading brutality, he must learn to tap into his beastly side, something that makes his rise in the underground boxing network akin to a descent into hell.

As a film built around of series of fights, one could easily expect Fatal Contact to be nothing more than an elaborate fight reel demonstrating Wu Jing’s abilities. And clearly, the fighting is impressive. Wu Jing is simply a superb martial artist, fast, lithe and powerful, perfectly managing the paradoxical mix of grace and brutality inherent to the application of martial arts to real life (or at least, real life in films). Nicky Li Chung Chi’s choreography is remarkable, grounded but spectacular, intricate but fluid and natural. Indeed, Li proved in this film and in many others in the following years, that he is to Wu Jing what Yuen Woo Ping is to Jet Li, or what Donnie Yen is to Donnie Yen : a sympatico choreographer, bringing up the best in the action actor. Here, it also helps that Wu Jing is pitted against an array of excellent ‘supporting’ martial artists : Andy On, Shi Yanneng, Timmy ‘son of Sammo’ Hung, help make the various fights almost all memorable and endlessly re-watchable.

But where Fatal Contact really surprises, is in its willingness to take place in the real world and acknowledge it. In between the fight scenes (which are plentiful but not omnipresent), the film manages to touch on the dreams of Mainlanders confronted to Hong Kong’s free-er, richer lifestyle (dreams shown as hollow or at least treacherous by the striking last minutes of the film), but also quite simply on the harshness of times, be it with the descent into prostitution of a friend of Siu Tin’s (Theresa Fu), or Captain’s dream of opening a Dim Sum shop for his downtrodden mother. It does so in a heartfelt and clever way, though it isn’t exactly subtle. But indeed, the film calls to mind Walter Hill’s Harsh Times, the tale of Charles Bronson bare knuckle-fighting throught he Great Depression under James Coburn’s supervision. Here Miki Yeung unexpectedly has the Coburn role of the wily agent, though her character is more of a scarred girl trying to survive by any means, her touching, burgeoning love with Kong weighted down by a sense of guilt, the reason of which is a final revelation in the film.

Yeung is excellent, as is Ronald Cheng who not only brings light-heartedness and gravitas in equal measure, but also acquits himself surprisingly well when he gets to fight. But this is Wu Jing’s film, and he simply shines, not only as a fighter but also as an actor, with a sweet, touching performance that also visits dark places of bestiality in the more ruthless fights and blind fury in the powerful final scenes, where all goes to hell. But the quality and chemistry of Wu, Cheng and Yeung also brings about moments of comedy that don’t feel too forced, especially in a funny training sequence that makes Wu’s earnestness, Cheng’s drollness and Yeung’s cuteness collide to hilarious effect. Yes, this is a film that doesn’t look like much, but succeeds in a lot of ways.

Long Story Short : Both an impressive demonstration of Wu Jing’s considerable talent as a martial artist and an actor, and a touching, almost tragic tale of survival through harsh times and the loss of innocence. Not a subtle film, but a heartfelt, hard-hitting one. ****

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