I’m all for movies that provoke, unsettle, and generally make you work for your price of admission. But I must admit that one of the great cinematic pleasures has to be that moment when you sense a director inviting you to give yourself over to their vision, to nestle comfortably into the position of spectator and be guided by their assured hands. So confidently do they lead us through whatever trajectory they’ve set up, it’s as if there’s no behind-the-scenes tinkering at all, but merely the seamless progression of one event clicking naturally into another. It’s not that these filmmakers turn us into passive slugs, drooling at the screen with glassy eyes. Rather, they engage us actively, inviting conjecture and hypotheses as to what will happen next, even as we remain certain that all will eventually, deliciously be revealed.
This intoxicating sensation bubbled up in me throughout the opening sequence of Accident, Pou-Soi Cheang’s tight-as-a-drum thriller about a coterie of assassins who stage their precision-made hits to appear as everyday urban mishaps. After a perfunctorily “ambiguous” opening shot of a mysterious woman dying in a nighttime car crash, the film throws us into a hectic metropolis, packed with midday traffic and bustling pedestrians. We’re initially placed alongside the group’s target as he yells at a woman (Michelle Ye) with a flat tire to move her car out of the road. The irate man maneuvers down a side street, only to have a large banner fall on his windshield, obscuring his view. He storms out of the vehicle and attempts to pull the rest of the sign down, yanking at the wires that connect to a large plate-glass window above the car. A few tugs are all it takes for it to shatter and rain down on the man, leaving him gasping for air amid glass shards and a growing pool of blood.
Cheang reveals his hand slowly here, with carefully-choreographed details that signal the machinations behind these seemingly chance events: a perfectly-timed splash of water from a moving truck, a dropped cigarette still smoking on the pavement, a stray balloon floating up to block a security camera. By the time Cheang definitively reveals the scene to be a planned assassination, it’s but one final surprise in a scene full of tense, twisty reversals of expectation. The meticulousness of the editing, the detail of the soundscape, the agile shifting of perspectives from the target to his killers: The work of Cheang, cinematographer Yuen Man Fung, and editor David M. Richardson is Hitchcockian in its dexterity and vigor.
In this sense, form and content merge nicely throughout the first half of Accident, which is nothing if not the story of how skilled professionals work to make their complex—and morally queasy—efforts appear spontaneous and, well, effortless. Screenwriters Kam-Yuen Szeto and Lik-Kei Tang briefly sketch out the backgrounds of the group’s members: Sober, bespectacled leader Ho Kwok-fai (Louis Koo) remains haunted by his wife’s tragic death, and Uncle (Shui-Fan Fung) has begun a descent of senility. But interpersonal drama largely takes a backseat to the execution of elaborate deathtraps. Moral qualms do too. One of the film’s bravura set pieces revolves around the execution of an elderly, handicapped man paid for by his resentful son, and no one seems particularly bothered by it. But lingering on the film’s ethical stance (or lack thereof) is a losing proposition. What matters is the unfolding of action itself, the pleasure of watching best laid plans go off with clockwork-like exactitude.
Accident eventually settles into more familiar narrative rhythms, owing quite a bit in tone and message to Coppola’s The Conversation. The hit on the old man takes an unexpected turn when a runaway bus careens through the murder site, killing a member of the team. Suspecting foul play, Fai begins spying on Chang Fong-chow (Richie Ren), the insurance agent that the old man’s son consults after his father’s death. He rents the apartment below Chang’s and spends endless hours listening in on his phone conversations, hoping to piece together the scheme that Fai knows must be behind the seeming mishap. He begins to lose himself within a maze of mistrust and obsession, and Cheang keeps the tone terse and anxious to the end.
If never less than engaging, these later sequences also feel a touch rote when compared to the fiendishly clever earlier episodes. Then again, to return to the cool elegance of those scenes would ultimately compromise the pulp-tragedy of Accident’s closing twist: a hot-blooded jolt to a film so defined by chilly, ruthless grace.
Accident will play on February 19 and 20 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.