|While Milkway head honcho Johnnie To is aiming at the Mainland market in 2011 with Don't Go Breaking My Heart and Romance in Thin Air, Milkyway's other directors continue to make smaller, sometimes edgier efforts aimed elsewhere. One of those directors is Law Wing-Cheong, who was an assistant director, editor, associate director and finally co-director for To before going solo with 2 Become 1. Punished is Law's fifth solo directorial effort, and it contains a bit of everything that audiences have come to expect from a Milkyway film – tough male characters, loyalty, gunplay and brutal violence. The problem is that Punished offers too much of the expected without any of stylistic flair that would lift this sort of material.
Like many recent crime movies, there's a fierce revenge plot at the center of Punished. Real estate tycoon Wong Ho-Chiu (Anthony Wong) and his ex-convict bodyguard Chor (Richie Ren) look for vengeance after Chiu's daughter Daisy (Janice Man) is kidnapped and murdered. Daisy's death should be a major spoiler, but Law employs a non-linear narrative for the first third of the film, thanks to the suggestion of frequent Milkyway editor David Richardson. The film starts with Daisy's demise and flashes back to the events that led to it. One revelation is that Daisy is a typical spoiled rich girl-type, who has become so reckless that Chiu suspects that she might have orchestrated her own kidnapping.
In addition to burdening the audience with jarring time shifts, writers Fung Chih-Chiang and Lam Fung convince that Daisy is so irredeemable that Punished is difficult to become emotionally invested in. Most of the characters in Punished, from the overbearing Chiu to Chor's own spoiled son, are generally unpleasant people, but each has redeeming qualities that at least make them seem human. However, in Daisy’s case, her resentment towards her stepmother (Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee) and her father’s tyrant-like nature aren't enough to compensate for her being a generally terrible human being.
Nevertheless, Law makes his villain (essayed with a slimy performance from Lam Li) so devoid of humanity that we still want to see justice being served. Punished offers a twist on the revenge formula by showing Chiu's psychological breakdown as a result of the revenge process. To further show Chiu's ruthless nature (thereby enhancing his subsequent change), Punished also features a ripped-from-the-headlines subplot about the failed efforts by Chiu's employee TK (a very sympathetic Charlie Cho) to facilitate the buyout of a small rural village. However, Chiu passively stays on the sidelines throughout, simply reacting instead of acting. Wong is intense in expressing Chiu's torment as his conscience begins to take its toll, but his breakdown never achieves the emotional impact the film intends.
What remains in Punished is a bleak action drama that plays by the book. Law has always been a capable and proficient director, and he brings that professional worksmanship to Punished. The film’s few action scenes are well-staged if a bit flat, and Law gets solid performances from his cast (with the possible exception of a miscast Richie Ren). However, the material is so by-the-book that it needs visual showmanship and a dose of humor to elevate it, and Law doesn’t provide these things.
Law takes an interesting risk by employing the Rashomon approach to paint a complete picture of Daisy's kidnapping, but the flashbacks are not revelatory enough to warrant the storytelling style, and instead drain the story of its tension. Even though it wouldn’t have improved on the inherent flaws in the characters, a chronological telling of the story might have been better for the film. Despite being one of the weakest Milkyway films in recent years, Punished is a passable, by-the-numbers crime film in its current form, and deserves credit for attempting more thematic depth than other films of the same genre. (Kevin Ma, Reviewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, 2011)