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King of Spy 2008
Chinese: 特務之王 King of Spy 2008
Year: 2008
Director: Chu Ka-Yat

Chu's Team

Cast: Chu Ka-Keung, Fung Hoi-Man, Ngan Lai-Shan, Chu Ka-Wai, Chow Wing-Fung
The Skinny: As a replacement for the heady days of Hard Boiled, King of Spy 2008 falls decidedly short. But considering its three-figure budget and fun action sequences, this could be the surprise of the year.

by Kozo:

I have seen the future of cinema, and it is King of Spy 2008. Well, not exactly. This shot-on-video movie features lower-than-low production values, and the acting and story aren't so hot. Still, the action is a genuine surprise, and for what it is, King of Spy is quite fun. The filmmakers wield their moviegoing-learned technique so well that forgiving the film's amateur status is easy. And besides, they spent less than 1000 US dollars on the movie. If film quality is judged relative to resources used, then King of Spy should be highly regarded by just about anyone.

Directed, written, produced and probably catered by Chu Ka-Yat, King of Spy tells the tale of individuals rebelling against a totalitarian government. One agent of justice, played by Chu Ka-Keung, takes it upon himself to strike back while also romancing a woman who may be involved with someone on the opposite side. There are gun battles and martial arts fights, and a pudgy, brooding bad guy who pouts a lot. Plus, lots of henchmen appear and disappear and some people wear masks. Occasionally, blocky Atari-esque CGI occurs.

That's the general synopsis, with the filmmakers' D-level resources making it difficult for them to create a convincing reality. The narrative possesses the basic outline of a B-level or higher thriller, but the filmmakers achieve more hilarity than thrills and it's all on what they're working with. Costume design is non-existent, art direction is excessively low rent, and the CGI sometimes looks like it was done in the eighties. Crowd scenes are rendered with what looks like the Sims graphics engine. Characters are killed and the actors playing them magically return as new characters, and the soundtrack was stolen from The Hunt For Red October, Infernal Affairs, Green Snake, Ashes of Time and the assorted works of John Barry. Calling King of Spy low budget could be an exaggeration.

However, not every Hong Kong filmmaker has access to professional actors, acceptable budgets or dedicated shooting schedules, and King of Spy 2008 had none of the above. This isn't a video-shot indie that was able to cast Joman Chiang, Sammy and that guy who appeared as the gang leader in Besieged City. King of Spy 2008 stars people who punch the clock to earn their daily wage, and the filmmakers shot the movie on weekends over the course of many years, using family and friends as actors and crew. Their work paid off with screenings at the 2008 Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival, and even a small local release.

The key: the film's action, which was choreographed by "Chu's Team". Poor resources make the action cheap and inferior to regular Hong Kong action fare, but the industry has long ceased producing the balls-to-the-wall action it was known for. King of Spy serves up nostalgic, energetic action that apes Yuen Woo-Ping, Ching Siu-Tung, John Woo and more, with references to The Matrix, The Killer and a probably a zillion other movies. Editing is sharp, with sound design and camera movement replacing actual impact, and a few of the action sequences impress beyond their nominal status as low-budget homages. Sure, it all looks fake, and you would never confuse King of Spy with Hard Boiled. However, there's an entertaining and surprising quality to what these local filmmakers pull off.

Adding to the fun factor are the laughs, some intentional and some not. Aside from the acting and melodrama, which lean towards amateurish, the character names are subtitled in fanboy-friendly ways, with characters named Anakin, Obi-Wan, Padme and Chewbacca, among others. One nugget of wisdom is even purposely mistranslated as "May the Force be with you." Despite a storyline dabbling in seriousness, the filmmakers apparently have zero pretensions, never pretending that they're trying for high art. Also, the filmmakers pull one audacious reveal on the audience, with a reference to an actual 20 year-old historical event that has to be seen to be believed.

King of Spy 2008 is clearly produced for amateur status, so one should not judge it by the same standards as professional work. Sure, if Michael Bay stamped his name on King of Spy and made us pay IMAX prices then we should all be upset. But what if your movie geek cousin, who barely works in the film industry and watches Star Wars religiously, shot a film using his personal video camera, had relatives choreograph the action, and spent years putting it all together? You'd probably be impressed. Most movie geeks talk a good game, but do they actually produce anything? Usually not. The makers of King of Spy put their money all small bills where their mouths are. (Kozo 2009)

image credit: Ying E Chi Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen