INSIDE OR OUTSIDE (2016) review

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Directed by Gary Mak Wing Lun, whose filmography as an assistant-director is much more illustrious than his filmography as a director, Inside or Outside follows a pair of private detectives: Fei Xin (Simon Yam) is a cool, collected retired police sergeant and Qiu Le (Wallace Huo) is a hothead who got expelled from the police. One day, successful writer Nanfang (Rayza) calls on their services to follow her husband Ou Jian (Jang Hyuk), whom she suspects of having an affair. She’s just given birth, and Ou’s coldness to her and the baby makes her think he doesn’t love her and married her for her father’s money and business connections. It turns out Ou is infertile but hasn’t told his wife, and thus believes she cheated on him and the baby is from another man. To complicate matters, a man from his past resurfaces: Xie Tianyou, his former business partner, against whom he testified in a trial and who subsequently went to jail. Xie is actually a dead-ringer for Qiu Le (and thus also played by Wallace Huo), which complicates matters even furtherer.

This is a streamlined version of the film’s synopsis: a few more characters and interconnections are thrown in over the film’s enjoyable 100 minutes. This is a film of many narrative strands, and for much of its runtime it makes for an enjoyably labyrinthine experience, as taut editing and a crisp pace keep things clear and engaging. Minor twists are cleverly laid out in a kind of ‘russian doll’ structure wherein every supposed truth actually amounts to a sum of tricks of the mind, whether they be lies or misunderstandings. In that respect the film’s original Chinese title, which translates as “there is only one ruth”, is more appropriate than the weirdly random ‘Inside or Outside”.

But while the film leaves few loose ends by the time the end credits roll (it evens wraps one while the credits are rolling), there are quite a few plot holes, and more unfortunately, all the different strands never coalesce into a mind-blowing or even satisfying whole, as it seemed bound to. After a stimulating first hour, the film seems to lose steam: “All this for that ?!” is the film’s main takeaway, as it sputters into a fairly coherent but underwhelming conclusion, capped off with a muddled finale in the form of a resolutely un-tense technological countdown. People staring at a computer screen looking for a password is not our definition of excitement.

On the other hand, maybe that was the film’s intended angle: a demonstration of how randomness, coincidence and appearances can give a sum of trivial matters the appearance of fate in motion. Whichever it is, Gary Mak keeps things visually interesting and allows himself a few narrative flourishes reminiscent of Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino, with none of the latter two’s heavy-handedness: a theoretical flashback is acted out as a silent film, and less derivatively there’s impressionistic prison fight and an atmospheric, almost surrealistic interlude in a abandoned amusement park where Jang Hyuk goes to acquire an unregistered gun. Offbeat humor abounds, from a motley gang that give themselves nicknames that are names of Korean heartthrobs they look nothing like, to the main duo’s placid pug, which actually eats cat food. And though Wallace Huo doesn’t really do anything with his dual role and Andrew Lin gets sidelined as a bewildered commissioner, Jang Hyuk is fine as a conflicted and enigmatic foil to a cooler-than-ever Simon Yam who’s clearly having a lot of undemanding fun.

Long Story Short: Whether it’s not as clever as it thinks it is or more clever than we think it is, Inside or Outside is a brisk, entertaining caper with engaging visual and narrative flourishes, and a fun Simon Yam performance to top it off. Too bad it ends with a whimper rather than a bang. ***

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