Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide opens with the reflective voice of a young man sketching in the story of Genesis over a hurried montage of Hong Kong nightlife: crowded bars, snarled traffic, prostitutes at work. His version sometimes seems gleaned less from onionskin pages than from comic-book panels (“Then began the game of survival of the fittest”) and concludes that everything after Adam and Eve has just been attempts at starting over, at finally getting it right. The voice belongs to Tyler (Nicholas Tse), a bartender who decides to begin again after he and an undercover cop, Jo (Cathy Chui), go on a drinking binge that culminates in anonymous sex (which neither of them can remember) and a panicked morning after . . . Cut to a shot of wispy white clouds in a crystal-blue sky and the title “Nine Months Later.”
The dreamy, melancholic tone of these initial scenes is more Wong Kar-Wai than Tsui Hark, who, as a producer (of A Chinese Ghost Story and John Woo thrillers including The Killer and A Better Tomorrow) and a director (Peking Opera Blues, the Once Upon a Time in China series, The Blade), is one of the central architects and innovators of Hong Kong‘s delirious high-wire action style. It’s hard not to imagine that this seasoned co-writer-producer-director, in his first Hong Kong film since the two Jean-Claude Van Damme misfires (Knock Off, Double Team) he made for Columbia, is in the midst of reinventing himself. The impression doesn‘t last long, though. In short order, Tsui Hark is back in character, providing the kinds of furious, giddy blasts of energy that leave the senses reeling.
Even for those accustomed to Tsui Hark’s pell-mell brand of storytelling, following Time and Tide‘s plot is a challenge best left until after the smoke has cleared. Essentially, Tyler, hoping to make things right by a pregnant, lesbian and plenty testy Jo, signs on with a shady bodyguard firm (run by Anthony Wong) to earn extra money. In a chance encounter in a toy shop, Tyler meets Jack (Wu Bai), an ex-mercenary — also trying to escape his past — who’s buying a gift for his pregnant wife, Hui (Candy Lo), the estranged daughter of a Triad boss. When, in a subsequent encounter, Jack helps Tyler thwart an assassination attempt on Hui‘s father, the two men form a fast bond — but end up on opposite sides when a reluctant Tyler is assigned to protect a Brazilian drug lord who comes to Hong Kong gunning for Jack.
More than by fate or the untetherable forces of its title, Time and Tide’s characters are hopelessly overwhelmed by Tsui Hark‘s stylistic brinkmanship. Rocketing from one extended, bravura set piece to another — the lobby of a seedy Latin flophouse, a grand ballroom, a crumbling tenement, Kowloon Station — he demolishes, or one-ups, a decade of accumulated action cliches (even his own). Where The Matrix gave us high-caliber shells raining down in slow motion, Tsui Hark follows an empty clip as it sails across a room to knock a glass off a table. All along its disjointed, fragmented way, the film plays like a director’s reel of showy effects, the camera zooming through a sniper‘s scope, rushing past digital flames into the heart of an explosion, horizontal and vertical split screens linking lovers and assassins. (Some things, however, remain sacrosanct: The safety of a newborn baby is still at the center of the final gun battle.)
Tsui Hark’s thorough mobilization of the genre‘s visual vocabulary — a melange of imagery and dazzling fight choreography matched by the film’s verbal mix of Cantonese, English and Spanish — is extraordinarily witty (nothing new for this director) while coming off as a taunt to anyone who‘d dare to follow in his wake. His body of work has had a phenomenal impact on recent action cinema, and one gets the sense that Time and Tide’s unrelenting pace and artistry are motivated by an innovator‘s need to pre-empt his imitators. To the Wachowski Brothers, Ang Lee and others, Tsui Hark seems to be saying, “Appropriate this!”