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Time and Tide   C+

TriStar Pictures

Year Released: 2000 (USA: 2001)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Tsui Hark
Writers: Koan Hui, Tsui Hark
Cast: Nicholas Tse, Wu Bai, Anthony Wong, Joventino Couto Remotigue, Candy Lo, Cathy Chui.

Review by Eric Beltmann

The tag line for Time and Tide pledges, "No tigers, no dragons... just a hell of a lot of bullets." By self-consciously drawing a line between Tsui Hark's brash urban pyrotechnics and the deliberate slowness of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the marketers behind Hong Kong's Time and Tide are positioning it as a faster, more modern action film than Ang Lee's martial-arts epic. This has resonance for fans of Tsui, whose reputation was earned by producing the same wuxia films that inspired Lee, like the hugely successful Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and the Swordsman series.

I suppose I would count myself as one of Tsui's admirers, although I don't believe his prolific career has yet yielded a truly important film. Close, perhaps, is Peking Opera Blues (1986), a brisk comedy-adventure that expresses anxiety about 1997, the year control of Hong Kong reverted back to China after 99 years of British colonial rule. That rousing political allegory, about three women who wish for different things from turn-of-the-century Chinese society, galvanized international audiences. Most of Tsui's other work is less effective. Still, few filmmakers have so enthralled me with their restless pacing and guiltless violence: Two of my favorite movie trances are the Tsui-produced Swordsman II and A Chinese Ghost Story, which remain landmark martial-arts fantasies.

Now Tsui's record as a swordsplay wizard has been willfully set aside -- at least by the moneymen -- but I doubt the intention is to snub the kung fu genre. Instead, I think the goal is to plainly align Time and Tide with a different genre of Hong Kong cinema, the gunplay epic. Pop idol Nicholas Tse plays Tyler, a bartender who impregnates a policewoman during a one-night stand. Although she refuses his help, Tyler desires to financially assist her and takes a job with an unlicensed bodyguard service. By chance Tyler meets Jack (Wu Bai), a disillusioned mercenary whose father-in-law is a crime lord. These two Hong Kong thugs become friends even as external forces push them towards contrary sides of a local triad showdown.

Narrated by the meditative bartender, the initial scenes of Time and Tide seem affected by Wong Kar-Wai and his interest in the rhythms of contemporary urban life. I found the relationship between Tyler and the officer to be intricate, funny, and occasionally touching. Still, it's evident that Tsui is keener on the dualities between Tyler and Jack. Although Tyler hopes to jumpstart his life while Jack seeks to leave his behind, both men are primed to enter fatherhood, and both are inspired by the women in their lives. (Is it relevant to note also that both actors, Nicholas Tse and Wu Bai, are rock stars in Asia?) In the way Tsui explores chivalry and male loyalty within the context of bullets, he clearly cites John Woo gunplays like A Better Tomorrow and The Killer (both of which Tsui produced).

Either Woo film is superior in terms of structure and drama, but the action sequences of Time and Tide strive for a comparable level of operatic grandeur. Darting, zooming, craning, and spinning, the camera makes an imposing effort to seize exciting images. (In one unbroken shot, it lurks inside a building, watches a man dive from a high-rise window, and then the camera jumps itself, chasing the man as he plunges.) But how exciting is Time and Tide? Mechanically, I was impressed with the hopped-up, stylized hyperbole, particularly the contrivance that permits a woman to fire off rounds while giving birth. Narratively, though, I found much of the quick cutting too mannered, too destabilizing. Events are often intractable, or lacking tension. Since the on-screen movement feels arbitrary, the story largely evaporates between scenes. While I remember enjoying the chaotic moment a character escapes from an exploding tenement by locking himself in a refrigerator, I can scarcely recall the reason why he was in the apartment to begin with.

There are no tigers, and no dragons, but there's not much suspense or purpose in Time and Tide, either. Despite Tsui's experimentation with chronology and shorthand editing, this spirited ode to crashing bodies seems a mere appropriation of the styles and themes long employed by Wong, Ringo Lam, and Woo. It certainly doesn't rank with Tsui's best work as a director -- for a better introduction, I'd suggest Peking Opera Blues, or Green Snake, or the first Once Upon a Time in China, another take on the 1997 handover. Those films captured my imagination in a way that Time and Tide simply didn't.

Review published 07.06.2001.

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