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On the Edge
     

(left) Rain Li and Nick Cheung, and (right) Anthony Wong in On the Edge.
Chinese: 黑白道
Year: 2006
Director: Herman Yau Lai-To
Producer: Ng Kin-Hung
Writer: Herman Yau Lai-To
Action: Bruce Law Lai-Yin
Cast: Nick Cheung Ka-Fai, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Rain Li Choi-Wah, Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung, Lester Chan Chit-Man, Pauline Yam Bo-Lam, Ho Sau-Yi, Johnny Chen (Lu Sze-Ming), Eddie Peng Wai-On, Calvin Poon Yuen-Leung, Au Hin-Wai
The Skinny: Dramatic examination of an undercover cop's post-assignment life. Good performances and solid direction highlight this triad-themed downer, though the film does end rather anticlimactically. Those expecting cinematic Infernal Affairs thrills will be disappointed, but On the Edge is effective enough to be worthwhile.
 
Review
by Kozo:

Life as an undercover cop sucks. This much we've learned from every Hong Kong movie about undercover cops, from City on Fire to Hard Boiled to Infernal Affairs. Director Herman Yau explores a similar theme in On the Edge, only he concentrates on life after the undercover assignment is over. Nick Cheung is Hoi (or Harry in the subtitles), an undercover cop in the triads who turns in his boss Dark (Francis Ng) before returning to active duty as an average cop. In return for his years of loyalty to the police force, he gets a monetary bonus of less than US$1000, a spartan apartment without a working television, and suspicion and dislike from cop colleagues and former triad buddies alike. Obviously, they don't put this part of the job on the undercover recruitment poster.

Upon returning to active police duty, Hoi gets partnered with Lung (Anthony Wong), an intense cop whose methods include brutality and harassment of triads. This puts Hoi in a tough position, since his daily job now involves making life Hell for his former friends. Among his former triad buddies are Mini B (Derek Tsang), who lost the use of his arm while defending Hoi from a rival triad attack, and Cat (Rain Li), a club girl who was deeply in love with Hoi before she discovered he was a two-faced bastardThe two share some tender moments, but ultimately his status as untrustworthy traitor makes "happily ever after" a tough sell. Hoi is persona non grata not only to the triads, but to the cops, his colleagues, and probably even his friends - if he actually has any. Even worse, when he's not being suspected of being a traitor, people are actively trying to frame him as such. It's enough to piss off even the most emotionally grounded guy, much less one who's already having serious issues with wrong versus right.

On the Edge slams home this important fact: life as an undercover cop sucks even when you're no longer undercover. The film follows Hoi in his return to the "good" side, while frequently flashing back to his former "bad" life as a gang member. There, we discover that the triads weren't entirely bad, while the cops weren't all that great. Dark, while obviously a crimelord, was a likable, generally righteous fellow, and guys like Lung were sometimes cruel and needlessly brutal in their investigations. Hoi engaged in some morally questionable stuff while still a triad, leading to the notion that perhaps a part of Hoi has been "turned" by his life on the wrong side of the law.

In flashing back and forth, the film outlines the inherent contradictions of being an undercover cop in the triads, with the constant state of "in between" leading to Hoi's doubt, distress, and sometimes even denial of who and what he truly is. Those emotions remain in the present, though Hoi's problems now stem from the distrust he experiences from everyone around him. Once he was an undercover in the triads, but people now suspect that he may be undercover in the police force. Apparently, the grass isn't greener on the other side.

Herman Yau takes great pains to demonstrate the depressing nature of the undercover life, forgoing things like action or Johnnie To-like cinematic panache in favor of balls-to-the-wall drama. This approach is certainly effective, and On the Edge finds a compelling toughness of emotion and situation that few Hong Kong crime movies currently do. Instead of a densely plotted crime thriller, we get a dark drama about how playing too many sides can completely mess up your life. Yau winds his lead character so tight that it seems something's gotta give - which it does. Things go bad, leading to a well-staged car chase and a tense standoff. The burst of action throws the film into a welcome higher gear; suddenly, On the Edge seems to be heading for some sort of righteous "get back all that I lost" denouement where the harried cop achieves bloody justice.

However, that's not gonna happen. While a cathartic blowout ending seems to be in the offing, On the Edge never goes further, and instead wraps things up with a verbalized lesson in perspective. The lesson is intelligent and appropriate, but also more than a little anticlimactic, especially given the plot's buildup. When the credits finally roll, something seems to be lacking - though that may be commercial expectations talking. Herman Yau, who also wrote the script, doesn't seem to be aiming for the latest commercial crime thriller, and instead goes for a celluloid statement on how the undercover life blows both during and after the fact. This point is slammed home even further by a blatant title card containing the statistic that more than half of all undercover cops don't last three years after returning to duty. Given everything onscreen, the statistic is more obvious than enlightening, but Yau delivers his message effectively.

Performance-wise, Nick Cheung brings an intensity and flawed humanity to the character of Hoi, and Anthony Wong, Derek Tsang, and Francis Ng turn in excellent supporting performances. Ng stands out particularly, giving triad boss Dark a quiet strength and considerable charisma. Herman Yau gives most of his characters a welcome complexity, which only adds to the intriguing choices and moral murkiness that Hoi faces. The road he travels isn't black nor white, and the players themselves are driven more by circumstance and personality than any pretentious notions of right or wrong.

Despite the mega-obvious message spelled out, On the Edge proves to be a richer experience than its one-note thematic premise would indicate. It's probably less exciting than Hong Kong Cinema thrillseekers may hope for, and indeed its action-heavy trailer and gangster-chic poster (which features the entire cast wearing uber-cool sunglasses) seem to be stumping for some sort of kick-ass caper flick. Again, no dice. On the Edge is a tough and uncompromising crime drama, and a film that's probably not as enjoyable as people would like. But for what it is, it's still pretty good. (Kozo 2006)

 
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Universe Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
 

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