Pang Ho-cheung's Exodus (Cheut ai kup gei, 2007), screening as part of the 2009 event's "Hong Kong Film: New Action" sidebar, opens with a single, extended-duration, backward-moving take that director Pang pairs with Mozart's "Adagio and Fugue for Strings in C-minor." The shot begins on a tight close-up of a woman's eyes in a photograph, Queen Elizabeth II's as we soon learn (this opening scene occurs during HK's Commonwealth past), with the camera slowly pulling back to further reveal two men standing in their bathing suits and scuba gear. As the camera continues to mobilize backwards, we shortly see four more men dressed identically as they beat a fully-dressed gentleman lying on the ground. After the camera reaches the ground, Pang cuts to the title credit and then to further framings, also scored with classical music, of lead Simon Yam in highly modern urban interiors. As such, Exodus does not immediately explain the opening shot; Pang will withhold this sequence's narrative justification for a later exchange of dialogue: as in the film's primary subsequent plot line, there is a truth contained within this surreal scenario.
Exodus's principle plot subject soon crystalizes with Yam's interrogation of 'Peeping Tom' Nick Cheung, who claims, before suspiciously recanting, that he was attempting to gain evidence of a female conspiracy to murder all men. Again, Pang opts for overt stylization as he pushes in through a thin rectangular window as Yam's careerist uniformed police officer questions the suspect; Pang and cinematographer Charlie Lam's camera continues to move in and back out, reinforcing the actioner's postmodernist-typed art house aesthetic, along side the film's classical flourishes and its 21st century spaces. The image is spectacularly central to Exodus throughout: a low camera placement of Yam working on burnt chads of evidence through a glass table; another similarly low placement of looming, parallel freeways; and a mobile composition in which Pang reverses the visual field by framing one of his two nascent lovers in a wall-length mirror, all rate among the most indelible visuals of the recent HK cinema. Further compositions blend characters and decor, as for instance a bathroom-set narrative insert that combines the two in a single rouge palette, which provides a distant to echo to Pedro Almodóvar's thriller sub-corpus. Moreover, the film's seemingly less frequent and often more subtle sound manipulations equally impress: an extreme long of a worker ascending an industrial vat in a haz-mat suit includes the faint sound of the aforesaid's breath audible under his or her helmet. The capture of image and sound are indeed foregrounded in Pang's 'artful' genre picture.
Fortunately, Pang's narrative command is virtually equally to the control he maintains over his compositions. Focalized largely through Yam's protagonist - we follow him in his uncertainty, his disappearing skepticism and ultimately in his erotic desire - Exodus nonetheless exceeds the lead's knowledge base on occasion, relieving, in these spots, the audience of any uncertainty that it might still have with respect to the central premise. Without providing spoilers, suffice it to say that the film's penultimate extended, explanatory flashback, centering on one of the picture's two female protagonists, provides much of the picture's darkest humor, combining the improbable with the violent in the manner introduced at the outset. Pang's film is sure to be one of the more entertaining offerings in this year's NYAFF, and is almost certain to be its most visually striking.
It is even more imperative to say as little as possible about Yoshihiro Nakamura's highly entertaining Fish Story (Fisshu sutôrî), which seems the prohibitive front-runner for this year's "Audience Award" (following last year's well-deserved winner, Fine, Totally Fine). While I would at this point in the competition slightly favor Pang's offering, if for no other reason than for Exodus's sterling sense of composition in comparison to Fish Story's largely banal DV-imagery, there is no disputing the mainstream Asian pop appeal of Nakamura's latest. In particular this fictional tale of a 1975 Japanese punk record - which we are repeatedly reminded preceded The Sex Pistols breakthrough by one year - that saves the world in 2012, does as much with its coda as any other film this or most years: Fish Story features a Shawshank Redemption (1994)-style closer (and a similiarly easy, story detail-oriented brand of spectatorship) that shows us just how this happens, which the narrative's preceding, jumbled chronology and judicious handling of narrative details manages to keep unclear until the last. Nakamura also manages a substantial quota of humor - the film's ferry-situated Champion of Justice set-piece and its explanatory flashback rife with Karate Kid (1984) references ranks as the unmistakable highlight - that more than justifies the preceding hour and three-quarters.
Exodus screens at the IFC Center, Monday, June 29th at 12:50 PM and Fish Story at 6:15 PM, Thursday, July 2, at the Japan Society.