Ulterior Motive is Arthur Wong’s first film as a director in 28 years ; his last directorial effort had been the enjoyable, hard-hitting In The Line of Duty 3 in 1987. Not that he has been slacking off in the meantime : Wong is one of Hong Kong and China’s most illustrious cinematographers, having lensed everything from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Once Upon A Time In China to The Warlords and Painted Skin. We encourage you to have a look at his filmography, it’s a head-spinning list of some of the most gorgeously-shot films in Hong Kong and China. For his return to the director’s chair, he has chosen a noirish thriller about a rich heiress (Qin Lan), whose husband (Archie Kao) and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. The cop in charge of the investigation is her ex-boyfriend (Gordon Lam), an acutely intuitive sleuth who quickly targets her father (Simon Yam) as a prime suspect, after finding out troubling similarities between this kidnapping case and one he was involved in 20 years ago, that ended in murder.
With a director like this, you’d expect Ulterior Motive to look fine, and you’d be right. Arthur Wong entertainingly plays with the visual codes of Film Noir, contrasting crime scenes on desolate container yards or abandoned factories, to the veneer of wealth in luxury villas, and bathing the whole in both night and rain. His cinematography has a strangely glossy sheen and visual flourishes that make some scenes that are rooted in reality look like they’re actually dream sequences. At one point, a man clad in leather and wearing a gas mask emerges from a small windmill at the center of a lavender field, pushing a woman in a wheelchair ; the fact that it is neither a hallucination nor a dream sequence should tell you that Wong is having fun with his visual palette, but it is also one of many questionable narrative choices that plague the film.
The script can be boiled down to a reasonably interesting tale of deception and revenge, but the narration in painfully ill-conceived on almost every level. The fairly simple story is made artificially convoluted by a non-stop flurry of flashbacks, a regrettable feature of many a recent Chinese thriller, including 2013’s Pay Back which Arthur Wong actually produced and lensed. Weirdly, the proceedings are both spiced up by one character’s fading and unreliable memory caused by brain degeneration, and at the same time put through lazy shortcuts by another character’s “sixth sense”, a kind of heightened speculative ability that allows him to relive events that led up to a crime, even though he had no part in them. By the end, the film has turned into an explanation-marathon, trudging through each of its twist with voice-over and yet more flashbacks (this time meant to clarify rather than complicate).
The film’s message, as laid-out in the end by a Victor Hugo quote, is actually a touching one, but the fact that it’s expressed by labored exposition and a quote muffles its power considerably. In addition to Arthur Wong’s visuals and a passable car chase (orchestrated by Bruce Law), the cast goes some way towards making Ulterior Motive palatable in spite of its narrative shortcomings. While Qin Lan doesn’t get to do much else than cry helplessly and wring her hands, Archie Kao fares well in a dual role, Simon Yam (essaying a vast array of neckerchiefs) is on fine form despite not being challenged one bit, and Gordon Lam makes the best of a run-off-the-mill “gifted and over-dedicated cop” character. Good old Norman Tsui pops up for a cameo.
Long Story Short : Ulterior Motive is visually pleasing but narratively contrived and misguided, its good cast stranded among endless flashbacks and muddled plot turns. **1/2