Running Out of Karma: Soi Cheang’s Accident

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

Essentially a Milkyway Image version of The Conversation, a internalized paranoia thriller with metaphysical implications and a visual style that lodge it firmly in the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai universe even though they (probably) had relatively little to do with the production. Louis Koo plays The Brain, the leader of a group of hired killers who specialize in making their hits look like (wildly improbable) accidents, Rube Goldberg assassinations. Implicit in their work is the belief that because they create “random” events, nothing in the world is a matter of chance. As Koo explains, they are not the only ones in this business and in killing certain folks, they likely have created powerful enemies. Koo, driven by the film’s opening image (a woman dying in a car accident, his wife) sees enemies and conspiracies everywhere. When a hit goes wrong, it must be a work of a rival, or a betrayal by his team. The universe is not random, it is actively trying to destroy him.

Images of chaos abound: balloons, bouncing balls, a broken watch, falling leaves. As Koo becomes obsessed with his suspect, he spies on him, first with a small monocular, tunneling his vision of the man at work to a small iris. We later see a wide shot of his office building (the suspect in an insurance agent, a man who makes his living betting against chance), a massive grid of circles, like a Connect Four board infinitely multiplying Koo’s vision: potential suspects are everywhere. Koo eventually installs himself in the apartment below the suspect, where he listens to his every move Lives of Others-style, mapping its layout on his ceiling, a desperate attempt not at imposing order on chaos, but at solving the conspiratorial order that must lie behind everything that he sees.

This was Soi Cheang’s first film for Milkyway. (He would make another with Motorway in 2012,  a getaway car heist movie in which the car chases rely on stasis, specifically a 90-degree turn performed from a dead stop. An audacious move for a genre that has for 40+ years hinged on more and more reckless uses of speed). The screenplay is credited to the team of Szeto Kam-yuen and Nicholl Tang, who previously worked on Cheang’s The Death Curse and Home Sweet Home (Szeto as well had been with Milkyway since 1997, having worked on Wai’s Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, three 1998 films and Exiled, as well as the non Milkyway Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen films SPL and Flash Point. He died in 2012 at the age of 48 due to lung cancer.). It’s also credited to the “Milkyway Creative Team” a catch-all sometimes used by the studio to indicate its committee process at work, wherein the various screenwriters and producers working for the company have some input on the final film, but not so much to earn an individual writing credit. Like Motorway, Accident fits snugly within the visual style Johnnie To has established as the Milkyway norm: crisp images with vibrant color, deep black shadows shot through with unexpected shafts of bright white light and elegance in composition that allows for spatial clarity in the editing of suspense and action sequences. These are the only two of Cheang’s films I’ve seen so far, though I hear and very much believe that his earlier stuff is well-worth watching.

It’s the thematic interactions with To and Wai’s previous work that strike me as most interesting about Accident. One of the running theories of the Running Out of Karma series (if I ever get back to actually writing about To, as opposed to the dozens of other Chinese-language cinema tangents I find myself getting lost within) is that the governing interaction (conflict isn’t the right word at all) in To’s films is that between fate and chance, between the complex web of forces that rule our lives (fate, karma, traditional moral and filial imperatives, even government itself) and the seemingly random ways in which those forces manifest themselves. Encounters (or the lack thereof) between lovers and enemies, coincidences, and luck routinely form the basis of the plots of the Milkyway films, which are in turn populated by doomed characters, fated to play out a pre-ordained role with little free will to be found. The Election films are the darkest, while the slapstick romantic comedies are the lightest, but the underlying metaphysics remain remarkably consistent in film after film. Life is a game and the degree to which the game is rigged marks the line between comedy and drama, between violence and farce.

So Accident, then, takes this vision of a universe governed by fate and administered through chance and turns in into paranoid fantasy. Louis Koo, The Brain, convinces himself that sinister forces are controlling his life (much as they indeed did for Koo’s gangster in Election 2) because he, like To and his writers, has devoted his life and career to creating elaborate illusions of chance. The set pieces in Accident are as cunningly designed as the culminating randomness of PTU or Expect the Unexpected. But where To’s heroes are constantly striving outwards, struggling against the system despite the hopelessness of the task (even if they don’t even know anymore why they’re doing it, as in Vengeance), The Brain retreats ever further inward, lost in his delusion (think of the mirrors which Koo carefully positions around his apartment, allowing him to see all the angles at once so that no one may sneak up on him with the fracturing of identity in the mirror-shattering climaxes of The Longest Nite and Mad Detective), his universe collapsing in on itself until even it too is erased by the inevitable consequence of an accident.

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