Hong Kong 2004
Directed by Gordon Chan.

No, it's not about a steak sauce. A-1 I imagine refers to the front page of the newspaper: section A, page 1. Ling (Angelica Lee Sinje) is a fashion reporter, Kevin (Edison Chen) her photographer. She wants to quit her job because she broke up with her boyfriend Peter, the top reporter for the paper. But before she can, she discovers he is killed in a car accident. Meanwhile she is deep in debt and two debt collectors, Fei (Anthony Wong) and Ma (Eric Kot) catch up to her and pressure her to pay back. But Fei, it turns out, used to be a cop but got dumped from the force when it was discovered he was in debt to the triads and trying to conceal it. And when he hears about Peter's murder, he starts to wonder if it was really an accident. From there, the four mismatched strangers begin investigating the case in this remarkable drama from director Gordon Chan.

What is interesting about the investigation in A-1 is not so much what they uncover. We are used to movies like this, and how our hero unravels an ever more complicated conspiracy, climbing all the way up to the President or Papacy or whatever. In A-1, the conspiracy is nothing like that. They have ideas, they investigate them, as often as not, they are wrong. What is interesting is that each character has a motivation for conducting the investigation beyond the material facts of the case. Ling feels profound guilt for Peter's death. She broke up with him, she knew he was depressed, she believes for a while he might have killed himself over her. To believe instead in a conspiracy, to want to uncover the truth, to "complete his work," is the path she takes toward recovering her strength. Fei, meanwhile, lives under a crushing debt he has no chance of ever paying off, and seems to be just ticking away time as a debt collector. Peter's death sparks his curiousity, while Ling sparks his sympathy. The investigation in a way brings him back from the dead and helps him put to rest old ghosts.

All of the principal characters give great performances, including and especially Tony Leung Ka-Fei as the newspaper's editor. Anthony Wong in particular stands out, and I think his character -- the debt collecting ex-cop who investigates cases to help his debtors -- could easily be the basis of a TV show or series of movies (A-1 performed poorly at the box office, no needless to say there is no chance of this happening). Eric Kot turns in another convincingly gonzo performance -- I've come to the conclusion that the guy is a genius, pure and simple. And even the youngsters (Lee Sinje and Edison Chen) acquit themselves well.

Earlier in 2004 we had Johnnie To's exploration of the use and misuse of the media and its relation to the police in his BREAKING NEWS. Here again, the relation between police and reporters is explored, but in a far more competent and coherent manner. A-1 is everything BREAKING NEWS wanted to be but isn't, and the action never disrupts or contradicts to the message.

A-1 depicts humanity in all its shades of grey, and the characters are constantly passing judgement, or trying hard not to, as they fumble forward with only incomplete pictures of the truth. At the end of the film, there are still gaps, the whole story is never fully resolved. We have to live with that ambiguity. But a guiding priciple is given at one point by Fei which sums up the movie nicely: "Not as many people are bad guys as you think." Fei, discharged from the police, working for the Triads, feared by the people whose debt he collects, disrepected by those who try and collect his debt, knows what he is talking about.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on February 15, 2005.

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