This year’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN; Bucheon, South Korea) boasted some fine international crime cinema as part of its intriguing selection of genre-film fare, as evidenced by the following three offerings.
Hong Kong action/mystery hybrid A Witness Out of the Blue (Fàn Zuì Xiàn Chǎng, 2019) offers up solid, fun entertainment, if not much in the way of originality. Likeable but lazy Detective Lam (Louis Cheung) does little to ingratiate himself with his superior Inspector Yip (Philip Keung) and his fellow officers when he insists that a parrot that was the sole witness to a murder could help crack the case. Sean Wong (Louis Koo) was the leader of a heist whose members are being murdered. The take from that robbery is also missing. Yip single-mindedly believes that Wong is responsible. Meanwhile, Wong is himself trying to discover who the killer is, while holing up at a boarding house for the elderly run by a visually impaired landlady (Jessica Hester Hsuan).
A Witness Out of the Blue treads the grey area for both the determined criminal Wong and the obsessed Inspector Yip, with Koo giving a standout stoic performance as the former, and Keung doing a fine job with the latter as he pushes the envelope of scenery chewing without crossing the line. Cheung is charming and funny as the down-on-his-luck Lam. Writer/director Chi-Keung Fung fashions a well-paced movie that is easy on both the eyes and the brain. Seasoned Hong Kong action cinema fans will probably see the outcome telegraphed. Although the resolution may feel a bit flat, the overall experience is well worth a viewing.
Winner of BIFAN’s Audience Award, Sheep Without a Shepherd (Wu sha; China, 2019) is an excellent, taut thriller that packs in a great deal of emotion and family drama. Malaysian director Sam Quah (as Boon-lip Quah) delivers a complex cat-and-mouse feature with noir elements and dark humor. Li Weijie (Yang Xiao) is a Chinese man whose family resides in a Thai village with a sizable Chinese population. He is a movie lover, boasting of watching more than 1,000 in his life so far. When not working at his network service business, he can often be found at the local establishments discussing films. When his teenage daughter Ping Ping (Wenshan Xu) attends a weekend educational camp for the highly motivated, she is sexually accosted by Su Cha (Tianyang Bian), who records the incident on his phone and threatens to blackmail her if she doesn’t give in to his further advances.
Li’s wife A Yu (Zhuo Tan) and Ping Ping set a trap during which the daughter accidentally kills him — worse luck, because he is the son of Chief of Police La Wen (Joan Chen) and mayoral candidate Du Peng (Philip Keung). Li. who was out of town on business when the killing occurred, comes back and uses his cinematic knowledge to try to cover up the crime. Conveniently, he and his family live next to a cemetery, where young daughter An-An (Xiran Zhang) witnessed her mother and sister burying the boy’s body. All seems to go well except that Sang Kun (Ming-Shuai Shih), who has a grudge against Li, sees the father in the victim’s car. What happens next is a battle of wills, traps, and schemes as Li does everything he can to protect his family while a highly suspicious La is determined to make someone in the family break and take responsibility for her son’s disappearance.
The performances are all first-rate with Yang outstanding as a good-natured everyman trying to do what he feels is right and Chen, a force of nature here, as a mother who wants answers and will push the limits of her police power to get them. A remake of the 2013 Indian Malayalam movie Drishyam, you would never know that this tightly wound suspenser was scripted by six different writers, so precisely delivered are all of the intricate turns. Quah shows a highly skilled hand at balancing the dramatic tension, mystery and suspense, and pitch-black humor. Sheep Without a Shepherd looks gorgeous, too, thanks to crisp cinematography from Ying Zhang.
The Heist of the Century (El robo del siglo; Argentina, 2020) is a superb crime comedy based on one of Argentina’s most famous bank robberies. Diego Peretti as Fernando Araujo and Guillermo Francella as Luis Mario Vetetti Sellanes head up a crackerjack ensemble cast. Peretti’s Fernando is an eccentric, philosophical pot smoker who concocts a wild plan to rob a bank by breaking into its vaults through the city’s sewers while a fake robbery takes place in the main lobby to distract police. Francella’s Luis is a charismatic thief who constantly disappoints his adult daughter by missing their plans. A mutual acquaintance suggests to Fernando that he should ask Luis for the money needed to get the robbery project rolling, and after a hilarious chance meeting, the two do indeed assemble a team of co-conspirators and make plans to pull off the heist. Interestingly, the film focuses audience sympathy on the thieves, who don’t really do anything morally to deserve it, but the way that director Ariel Winograd and screenwriters Alex Zito and Fernando Arajuo construct the gripping premise, it is difficult for viewers to root against those characters. Winograd builds the tension to almost unbearable levels, and delivers humorous sequences that balance out the proceedings marvelously. The pacing is near perfect, with editor Pablo Barbieri Carrera turning in excellent work. Félix Monti’s cinematography is stellar, as well. The Heist of the Century is an absolute blast and a strong candidate for my top 10 list of films this year.
A Witness Out of the Blue, Sheep Without a Shepherd, and The Heist of the Century screened at Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival which ran in Bucheon, South Korea, from July 9-16, 2020.