Director Danny Pang's Seven 2 One earned some buzz prior to release - though not for entirely positive reasons. Six members of the film's young cast also appeared in Herman Yau's Split Second Murders, which was shot after but released before Seven 2 One, with Seven's producers claiming that Murders ripped off their film's ending. In another controversy, the poster for Seven 2 One took its inspiration from the 2008 Hollywood thriller Vantage Point, with the image concept constituting a direct swipe. With all these accusations of "who copied who" flying around, does anyone remember that there's an actual movie to discuss? Hopefully they do, because Seven 2 One is a slick, if unsubstantial thriller that consistently entertains.
Seven 2 One's English language title refers to its seven separate stories, and how they ultimately converge into a single event: a convenience store robbery. After beginning, the film moves quickly to the robbery, where a masked thief demands the store's cash from the counter girl (Chrissie Chau) before getting into a fight with a loan shark (William Chan). While the counter girl and two customers (Carolyn Chan and Wylie Chiu) witness the event, the loan shark is stabbed and the thief flees.
Outside the store, various other players converge on the site. A cop (James Ho of boyband Square) arrives with a perp (Gary Chiu, also of Square) in tow, and other unidentified characters played by the rest of the idol cast show their mugs. Then it's flashback time - and it's only the first of many. Each flashback reveals one character's story, providing unseen and sometimes surprising perspective before reaching the robbery and then flashing back again, only to focus on a different character and their activities before the robbery. Repeat ad nauseum until a connected and hopefully compelling whole is revealed. It's like Rashomon, only not as good.
Actually, what Seven 2 One really resembles is Vantage Point - so it looks like ripping off the poster was more than just a coincidence. Narratively, both films use the flashback structure in the same manner, going for actual rather than subjective perspective, and using bombastic editing and music cues to initiate each flashback. The loud, intrusive music goes beyond just transitions; like many a Pang Brothers film before it, Seven 2 One delights in adding pulse-pounding soundtracks to scenes that don't require them - such as scenes with two people sitting on a sofa.
This "super obvious music" technique ramps up the tension, but it also creates occasional giggles. The movie isn't all tense moments; some scenes are quiet and attempt feeling, and having loud tinkly piano or thundering drums only makes them seem over-the-top or jarring. Pang's choices with his music are legitimate in that they do get his audience's attention, but arranging them differently or simply economizing could have resulted in a better, more felt film.
Not that Seven 2 One is bad – it isn't, and proves to be a fun and stylish little thriller. Starting the film with the robbery creates an immediate anticipation and continuing interest, which helps make up for the occasional lulls that occur when introducing new characters, all of whom connect to one another. Let's see: Chrissie Chau's counter girl hates her lecherous boss (radio DJ Leo Chim), who in turn is attempting to swindle a bar girl (Elanne Kong) into the sack. She's living with a compulsive gambler (Pakho Chow), who owes money to William Chan's loan shark, who's being investigated by James Ho's cop. The cop has an annoying brother (Siu Fei), etc., etc. I could go on and on.
The film's multiple stories turn out to be surprisingly interconnected, stretching across a web of intertwined characters, situations and even dark themes. Nothing here is extreme; despite several characters inhabiting the seamy side of life, their stories are not exceptionally lurid or attention-grabbing. Ultimately, it’s the time-shifting narrative and structure that carries the film, with the unseen connections between characters providing momentary bursts of cleverness. It's all very light but also efficient and fast-moving, with pretty stars, the trademark Pang style, and very little moralizing to get in the way of a good time.
That is, until the ending. Once the credits roll, the film provides a "what if" scenario showing the audience how things might have turned out if the characters had employed the Golden Rule rather than the self-serving attitudes youth are prone to. The device is well meaning but also highlights just how insubstantial the previous 80 minutes were. During the actual film, the element of choice is seldom presented, and without moments of reflection from the characters, the ending device comes off as tacked on and even pandering. By the way, a similar story device was used in Split Second Murders, so that's what that entire hullabaloo was about.
Controversy or depth aside, Seven 2 One survives on its own merits. The film looks great and moves briskly, and the actors are largely effective despite being lumped into either the leng mo ("young model") or idol category. Danny Pang has stated that one reason he made the film was simply to give new actors a chance to show their stuff. He largely succeeded; many of the actors breathe decent life into their not-very-likable characters, and hey, they're certainly easy on the eyes (except, of course, for Siu Fei). Seven 2 One is a capable, genre-friendly introduction to this next generation of supposedly promising talent. Let's cross our fingers and hope that they - and Hong Kong Cinema - can reach greater heights. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2009)