Before the Hong Kong TV series E.U. premiered back in February 2009 on local TV
|monopoly station TVB, the buzz was all about it being the third drama in the Academy series (a.k.a. TVB’s attempt at a contemporary version of the 80s Police Cadet series) and the glorious return of Kathy Chow Hoi-Mei to TVB after a ten-year absence. However, no one expected that a supporting character named Laughing Gor (played by Young and Dangerous veteran Michael Tse) would end up overshadowing stars Ron Ng, Sammul Chan and even Kathy Chow. When the wisecracking triad boss/undercover cop Laughing Gor died, the “Laughing Gor” group on Facebook skyrocketed to 150,000-plus members, making him one of the most popular characters on Hong Kong TV in years.
With “Laughing Gor fever” slowly fading in the minds of HK audiences, TVB decided to make the first film under their new co-production deal with Shaw Brothers (their first film since 2002’s Drunken Monkey) a prequel to E.U. that’s completely devoted to the legend of Laughing Gor. To help cash in on the Laughing Gor phenomenon (i.e., within five months of the television drama), TVB made the smart call of bringing on director Herman Yau, who is known for being able to deliver quick, quality product on the cheap. And to elevate Laughing Gor into quality cinema material, TVB brought in Francis Ng and Anthony Wong, two of the best actors in Hong Kong, both of whom are certainly no strangers to triad films. All of that results in Turning Point, an action thriller that once and for all should answer how a convenience store clerk named Leung Siu-Tong becomes the legendary Laughing Gor.
Fortunately, one needs little knowledge of E.U. to understand Turning Point; the story is almost completely independent of the TV show (except for a throwaway reference at the very end), and not even the original producer or writers on E.U. were involved in the film. In fact, the film doesn’t really explain what makes Laughing Gor the character he becomes in E.U., instead turning the character into the latest in a long tradition of tortured undercover cops that started with 1981’s Man on the Brink and had its last true creative peak with Infernal Affairs. Turning Point doesn’t bring the undercover genre to a creative peak, and actually presents so many double agent twists that it threatens to become a parody of itself. However, the film is a great example of economic storytelling, cramming a packed story that's enough for two films into an 89-minute running time, as the producers try their hardest to squeeze the Laughing Gor legend into something that they can show in theaters every two hours.
The story goes like this: once upon a time, Laughing was an undercover cop under Inspector Xian (Yuen Biao), the only man on the police force who knows his true identity. Laughing is deep undercover under triad boss One (Anthony Wong, glam-rocking his way through the movie), who was himself an undercover cop who ultimately became a triad after finding himself unable to return to police life. Unfortunately, Xian gets into a car accident and falls into a coma, leaving Laughing with no one who can vouch for him. Soon, Laughing finds himself on the run from both the police (led by Poon, played by Felix Wong) and triad bosses Zatoi (Francis Ng) and Big Brother Fook (Eric Tsang, constantly eating in his short cameo). Occasionally, the film flashes back to Laughing’s past, revealing that he was originally a mole sent into the police force by One. It's also revealed that Laughing is dating Zatoi’s sister Karen (TVB starlet Fala Chen), which gives Zatoi all the more motivation to catch the “under-undercover” agent, thereby keeping him away from his sister permanently.
Ironically, with actors like Anthony Wong and Francis Ng dominating the screen, Laughing Gor doesn’t even feel like the lead in his own movie. The script by Poon Man-Hung, Wong Yeung-Tat, and Milkyway regular Yip Tin-Shing simply swipes from the playbook of Hong Kong undercover films, figuring out ways to expand the Laughing Gor story into a sprawling epic barely deserving of its ensemble cast. The result is a story with so many characters that the film loses its focus of the one character the film is was designed for: Laughing Gor Whenever the film shifts to One’s story or Zatoi’s story, Wong and Ng immediately steal the film with their performances, leaving Laughing little more than an afterthought.
However, with his progressively silly wardrobe changes, Anthony Wong appears to be slumming, and his character’s abrupt change in the third act doesn’t help matters either. Instead, it’s Francis Ng who ends up giving the best performance. Ng's Zatoi will probably end up being a more memorable character than Laughing himself thanks to a well-written twist and a consistently solid performance throughout. On the other hand, without the charm he showed on television, Michael Tse simply spends the film running and acting tough, which doesn't make for a very interesting character. Since Laughing’s fate is known from minute one, his development should be the reason for audiences to see watch film. Instead, his development is left to a monologue at the end that amounts to a requisite dramatic moment as opposed to an important, revelatory one.
Turning Point is packed with so many people running and jumping off of buildings that it's clearly more interested in being an action-thriller than a psychological exploration of its titular character. Thanks to Yau’s direction, Turning Point does succeed on the action part with chases – both in cars and on foot – that are nicely shot. As mentioned before, Yau can deliver quality product on the cheap, and he succeeds thoroughly here. Despite the moderate-to-low budget, quick shooting schedule, and perfunctory art direction (empty warehouse is a visual motif here), Yau’s ability to churn everything into a seemingly quality motion picture is deserving of recognition. Thanks to Yau's effective direction, some solid performances, efficient storytelling, and some mildly extreme content that would never make it on a freely broadcast station like TVB, Turning Point turns out to be fine crime pulp. The film definitely delivers on the entertainment end of the deal, if not necessarily the quality end. “Better than TVB” may not be much of a compliment to some, but I guarantee that it’s a very good one here.
(Kevin Ma, 2009)