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The Moss
The Moss

(from left to right) Shi Xueyi, Shawn Yue, and Bonnie Xian in The Moss.
Chinese: 青苔
Year: 2008
Director: Derek Kwok Chi-Kin
Writer: Derek Kwok Chi-Kin, Clement Cheng Sze-Kit, Long Man-Hong

Shawn Yue, Bonnie Xian, Louis Fan Siu-Wong, Shi Xueyi, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Siu Yam-Yam, Liu Kai-Chi, Shaun Tam Chun-Yin, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Lau Kam-Ling, Matthew Chow Hoi-Kwong

The Skinny: Sophomore effort from the director of The Pye-Dog is watchable and intriguing, but possesses characters and relationships that prove interminable instead of compelling. The Moss is better as a crime thriller than a character drama, but barely more than an average combination of both.
by Kozo:

The Moss shares a few things in common with Derek Kwok's debut film, the pretentious, but still engaging and stylish Pye-Dog. Both films focus on low-level members of the triad underworld, both use quirk and fantasy to offset harsh realities, and both use an unlikely friendship to earn most of their emotional impact. However, Pye-Dog had a few things going for it that Moss doesn't. For one thing, the relationships created in Pye-Dog were much better acted and felt. The central relationship in Moss is between a homeless hitman (Fan Siu-Wong) and an underage Mainland prostitute (Shi Xueyi), and their bond just doesn't strike the same chord as Eason Chan's and Wen Jun-Hui's friendship in Pye-Dog. Also, to state the obvious, Eason Chan is a much better actor than Fan Siu-Wong.

But more important to the Pye-Dog vs. Moss comparison is that Derek Kwok's ideas felt more novel on his first feature. A debut director always gets some latitude because they have yet to establish their "thing", i.e. the overriding themes, devices, and narrative shortcuts that become a part of their continuing work. Some directors can make that thing into their strength (e.g., Johnnie To and his Buddhist leanings), but to other directors, it can become a crutch (e.g., Wong Kar-Wai in My Blueberry Nights). Kwok's ideas were never truly original (Really, what in cinema is anymore?), but he managed to affect in Pye-Dog with his particular mixture, a combination of Hong Kong Cinema tropes and borderline risky sentimentality. The whole of Pye-Dog was somewhat manufactured, but there was obvious heart and an actual attempt at meaning. Successful or not, The Pye-Dog signaled the arrival of a director to watch.

The Moss confirms that Kwok is still on the "to watch" list, though its repeated devices and lack of compelling characters nudge it close to a sophomore stumble. The star is the ubiquitous Shawn Yue, who strains valiantly in the role of Jan, an ex-undercover cop who has serious loyalty issues. He may be a regular cop now, but he still has some ties to former boss Bro Tong (Liu Kai-Chi), plus he's inextricably tied to Tong's rival, Chong Mom (Siu Yam-Yam, who just won a Hong Kong Film Award for her turn in Pye-Dog). We first meet Jan on a prostitute raid, when he betrays his duty by helping his prostitute girlfriend Lulu (Bonnie Xian of Naraka 19) escape questioning. Just before, Lulu's little cousin Fa (Shi Xueyi) arrives to join the trade, plying her underage wares to earn cash from the local johns. She understandably needs to be hidden from the raiding cops, but there's yet another thing going on at the same time. Chong Mom's fat son returns from the Mainland with a gift for his mom - an emerald that he's hidden in his rectum. He takes a break to visit a prostitute, and gets into a fight with her just upstairs from Jan's raiding cop team.

The outcome of all these criss-crossing, "wow, isn't it a coincidence that all this is happening at the same time" elements? The emerald shoots (or perhaps squirts) out the window and ends up in Fa's hands, Chong Mom's son goes missing, Chong Mom blames his disappearance on Bro Tong, and Jan is called in to clean up the whole mess. Chong Mom wants him to negotiate with Bro Tong to find her son, but nobody seems to be amenable to a nice chat, and things get worse with the arrival of the homeless Beggar (Fan Siu-Wong), who takes out Bro Tong's men with brute force, leaving few alive and Jan in a pretty bad state, too. To further complicate the coincidences, the Beggar befriends Fa, leading to more problems when his violent tendencies erupt around Fa and Lulu. Fa is kidnapped by the Beggar, Lulu ends up in the hospital, and Jan now has Chong Mom AND his overbearing superior officer (Shaun Tam) on his case. All this, plus a group of violent Pakistanis that may or may not be tied into the brewing gang war. Jan? He just wants to get Fa back, make Lulu happy, and ride off into the sunset like the prostitute-visiting, burnt-out, beaten-down corrupt cop that he is. But is the Beggar really a bad guy, and is there some other sinister force at play?

The screenplay of this gritty character crimer is rife with interesting details, small ironies, and little quirks, many of which feel like they belong in a Johnnie To movie (co-screenwriter Szeto Kam-Yuen is a veteran of many Milkyway productions). The opening of the film signals some promise, and though some details are forced, The Moss initially looks like it'll be a nice addition to Hong Kong's quirky crime-films-with-character tradition. Kwok has an eye for capturing the dirty streets of local districts Tai Kok Tsui and Sham Sui Po, and his usage of shaky-cam action and sweaty characters gives the film a claustrophobic, tense feel. Kwok's doesn't enthrall with his exploration of street-level Hong Kong jiang hu, but he does enough to generate and sustain interest in his ensemble cops-and-crime soap opera. He dutifully establishes characters, conflicts, and goals, and sets them all in play towards an uncertain, anticipated outcome.

Unfortunately, that's when The Moss stalls, very noticeably. At a certain point, the players are known and their situations defined, but instead of heightened tension we get a pace-shattering slowdown that starts to feel interminable. The film focuses on each character's situation and motivations, and we learn that each has been marginalized, if not by circumstance then perhaps by choice. The title "The Moss" is literally invoked, relating to the idea that we can't all be trees in the forest, and sometimes it's better to be just the moss on the rocks. Wow, what better metaphor is there for a crappy corrupt cop, an unbalanced homeless hitman, and an unfortunate underage hooker than to compare them to incidental vegetation in the woods that nobody gives a lick about? If nothing, The Moss tries to mean something. Kwok and company have put a lot of thought into their motion picture, and their effort is noted.

Unfortunately, their effort doesn't really translate into success. The meaning in The Moss is well-taken, but Kwok doesn't really get his intentions to fully register. For one thing, the metaphor and meaning require labored explanation, and for another, these characters are very difficult to care about. There's supposed pathos in the Beggar's friendship with Fa, plus Jan's murky loyalties to his job and his girl, but Kwok fails to make the situations matter. The intended significance of them is easy to discern, as it's spelled out with navel-gazing dialogue and more than a few extended metaphors. However, the characters themselves are not truly likable, and the details made to humanize them - the Beggar's love for his mother, and Fa's affinity for a fantasy pop-up book - never become more than just narrative devices. Shawn Yue's Jan is even less compelling, because his character arc is one of maturation or growth, and simply watching Shawn Yue brood doesn't get the job done. The midsection of The Moss drags, and it takes its characters and situations down with it.

Thankfully, the film does recover for a surprisingly violent finale that entertains in a visceral, if not substantial manner. Characters get sweaty and bloody, and there is some feeling of redemption, minor though it may be. The problem is that The Moss wants it to be major. This is a pretentious film, more so than Pye-Dog as The Moss lacks the playfulness and likeable characters that came with Kwok's previous film. Other than a few guiltily fun gags (the hiding place of the emerald is an amusing, though dirty talking point), The Moss is a largely serious affair, with only the occasional black humor adding some edge. Many of the film's more interesting talking points may have nothing to do with its meaning, e.g. the casting of TVB fixture Gill Mohindepaul Singh in a key role, or the minor crime riffs that feel taken from the Johnnie To/Milkyway playbook. There's still value in The Moss, and Derek Kwok remains a director to watch. One hopes, however, that he can find new stories and ideas to work with rather than leaning on his established devices. If he can't find better ways to channel his pet themes and ideas, Kwok's "promising filmmaker" status may become short-lived. (Kozo 2008)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

image courtesy Mei Ah Entertainment Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen