A real estate magnate and a chairman and executive producer at Johnnie To’s Milkyway Image, Dennis Law has had a strange career for the past ten years or so, with the law of diminishing returns, both critically and financially, leading him from the excellent and mildly successful Fatal Contact (Wu Jing’s best film as a lead), to the abysmal and little-seen Vampire Warriors. The Constable, though even less seen, can however be counted as a return to form of sorts. It follows Kuen (Simon Yam) a transportation officer in the Hong Kong police, who is also a single parent since his wife left, unable as she was to cope with the fact their son (Li Jin-Jiang) has Down syndrome. He is nevertheless helped by Yan (Niu Mengmeng) a kind girl whose lame, up to no good boyfriend (Sam Lee) is close to being recruited by local gangster Kim (Ken Lo) for an upcoming hold-up. We also follow clumsy rookie cop Mei (Zi Yi), and his burgeoning romance with a colleague (Maggie Li). Kuen’s colleague (Lam Suet) and superior officer (Maggie Siu) also pop up from time to time.
The Constable defies expectations in a few ways. Given the cast of Johnnie To favorites (Simon Yam, Lam Suet, and Maggie Siu are fixtures of the Police Tactical Unit series, and another To regular, Eddie Cheung Siu Fai, has a cameo) and pared-down Milkyway Image aesthetic, you might expect it to be one of those ‘cop soap operas’ the company has been known for, that is to say fairly realistic procedurals that focus on the cops’ private lives as much as they do on their job. But these films usually work on the basis that the cops they follow are flawed human beings, and devote their running time to the exploration of these shades of grey (Gordon Chan and Dante Lam’s Beast Cops is one of the most successful examples of that). The Constable on the other hand, is only interested in showing you how incredibly courageous, upright and virtuous Simon Yam’s Kuen is. He’s a caring father to a mentally ill son who also has a heart condition that puts his life in danger, as well as an outstanding cop and citizen who is seen deflecting dangerous situations and/or beating up thugs is a series of quick fights and mildly tense scenes that are entirely disconnected narratively, though well choreographed by Dennis Law’s action director of choice, Nicky Li Chung Chi. Kuen simply has no discernible flaw, he does his duty in a perfectly measured and honest way, in all aspects of his simple but exemplary life. It takes an actor of Simon Yam’s skill and humanity to actually sell such a saintly character and make him look real.
Expectations are also trumped when it comes to the film’s narrative project. For much of its running time, it looks like many narrative strands are being set up to finally coalesce in the final scenes. None of that happens however. Seemingly random scenes, well, stay random when all is said and done. Nothing approaching dramatic build-up ever occurs. There is indeed a kind of final action scene that wraps up some of the characters’ arcs in a modest way, but to call it a pay-off would be a wild overstatement. That is not to say the film is a flat line. Give in to its slightly cheap charms and semi-serious randomness, and there are strange pleasures to be gleaned, as well as as a real heart to be felt. Witness a non-sequitur action scene involving a martial arts fight between Lam Suet and a lady in high heels, in an elevator. Or a tense scene where Kuen has to crawl through a shop’s double-ceiling to deflect a hostage crisis. Rookie cop Mei follows him but gets stuck in the air conditioning pipes. You could say Dennis Law does exhibit a talent for drifting from mildly gripping tension to light-hearted humor to trivial strangeness and back again, all over the course of a scene. As for the film’s undeniable heart, it is to be found of course in Simon Yam’s tired but loving eyes when he looks at his son and calls him his gift from the gods (in a father/son relationship reminiscent of the Jet Li drama Ocean Heaven) or in Zi Yi’s endearing awkwardness, especially when around Maggie Li. In the end, truth be told, it’s never boring, and we’d almost welcome the prospect of a sequel (Dennis Law finances his films himself, so success is not an issue). Hell, give us a whole series like the PTU films. We can’t wait to see whom else Lam Suet could fight in a tight place.
Long Story Short : A strange variation on the ‘cop soap opera’ genre, The Constable possesses a heartfelt sense of the random and an almost endearing lack of narrative ambition. Its weird balance of trite whimsy and vague realism might however easily collapse if it didn’t rely on Simon Yam’s unique charisma. ***