Probably best known to western audiences for City On Fire, the film that inspired Reservoir Dogs (Whether Tarantino admits it or not) Ringo Lam is something of a forgotten figure in Hong Kong cinema, overshadowed by later action auteurs John Woo and Johnnie To. Wild Search is a solid if cheesy vehicle for Chow Yun-Fat, that doubles as a remake of Peter Weir’s brilliant Witness.
During a police raid of illegal gun selling in Hong Kong, the gun seller is caught in the crossfire, leaving her daughter Ka Ka (Chan Cheuk-Yan) alone. Detective Lau (Chow) accompanies her to her family’s village in mainland China, and into the care of her aunt (Cherie Chung). Meanwhile the head of the gun-runners instructs his henchmen to tie up all loose ends, including Ka Ka, the only witness to her mother’s murder.
Comparisons with Witness are inevitable, and unfortunately Wild Search just doesn’t really measure up. Weir’s film is infinitely more subtle, with a beautifully constructed story. Part of what makes it such a memorable thriller is the contrast between the city and Amish lifestyle, and the nuanced way Weir examines Amish traditions. In Wild Search, the film is transposed to Hong Kong and mainland China. The contrast isn’t as sharp, and Lam doesn’t explore the traditional side of Chinese culture in as much depth as Witness, and also drops the police corruption subplot, instead focusing chiefly on the romance between the two leads, and Lau’s friendship with Ka Ka.
Chow Yun Fat is as cool as ever in his third cop role with Lam (Previously appearing in City On Fire and Full Contact) managing to look cool in an assortment of incredibly unflattering costumes. Cherie Chung is full of warmth and wide-eyed innocence as Ka Ka’s aunt, completely unused to busy city life, and the budding romance between her and Chow is incredibly sweet and believable. Roy Cheung also makes a suitably sinister villain, but the script unfortunately tries to make him a bit more human by giving him a war hero backstory. If this had been fleshed out a bit more he could have been a more well rounded, memorable character, but as it is he’s neither an imposing villain or a multi dimensional character. It doesn’t help that the final showdown feels a little low stakes, and misses a few opportunities for genuine dramatic tension – why make an integral plot point of Ka Ka seeing the man who killed her mother, only for her to fail to recognise him at the crucial moment? It’s also frustrating that the main villain just vanishes towards the end of the film, leaving not much in the way of closure.
Where Wild Search does succeed is in the development of some of the ancilliary characters. Chan Cheuk-Yan is adorable, and her fractious relationship with the grandfather she barely knows is a touching little subplot. Ku Feng is also great as the irascible grandfather, who is reluctant to take Ka Ka in, mainly due to her father being a criminal. However the way their relationship develops is genuinley moving, particularly the moment she tries to run away, and the subsequent scene where he attempts to reconcile with her.
The execution of the final showdown is also expertly handled, and feels appropriately frenetic. The cinematography by Andrew Lau (Who would go on to direct the incredible Infernal Affairs) is stylish and often striking – the shot of lights reflected on Chow’s car windscreen looks very Michael Mann – but also frequently very strangely framed, with characters heads often cut off by the top of the screen!
Ultimately Wild Search is a solid thriller, but one that’s completely devoid of the elements that made Witness so memorable. The villain is frustratingly one note, and the story a bit plodding, but Chow Yun-Fat is always incredible, and there are some scenes of genuine pathos. It’s worth watching if you’re a fan of Hong Kong action cinema, or if you’re curious to see an Asian remake of a western film for once!
Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) | Archival interview with actor Roy Cheung.
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