You may confuse Time, director Ricky Ko’s debut feature, for another entry to the growing canon of promising, local films made by young Hong Kong directors. Yet here’s the plot twist: the grey-haired Ko has been an assistant director for more than 20 years. Not only does that reflect how hard it is to advance your career in the Hong Kong entertainment business, it also surprisingly befits the story of the film: octogenarians getting a second chance in life.
The octogenarians in question are three former assassins, and that second chance takes the form of setting up an assisted suicide service for elderlies who’d rather take the opposite path towards death. They hit a roadblock when one of their clients lies about her age and turns out to be a 16-year-old girl. On paper, there aren’t many premises juicier and richer than that, and Ko takes the obvious call to deliver thrills, laughs, and plenty of contemplation on life and death. The problem is how unbalanced these elements are, and how quickly the premise derails into an unfocused plot.
A Matter of Life and Death
It’s impossible to deny the emotional power of many scenes and lines in films about aging; the weight is literally there on the actors’ bodies, wrinkles, hair or lack thereof. They make the audience witness the toll time takes on people and the environment they live in. Not to politicize a film that isn’t concerned with hot-button topics, but Time nonetheless laments a Hong Kong culture and way of living facing inevitable elimination. AI robots replace Chau (Patrick Tse), a chef of hand-chopped noodles; blue screen glow and internet-speak proliferate communication. Under this context, the ’80s-sounding songs performed by Mrs. Fung (Petrina Fung) aren’t corny, but precious, saddening, and preserved.
There are many other similar thematic ruminations written by screenwriters Gordon Lam (yes, that Gordon Lam, leading man in Hong Kong cinema and recipient of NYAFF’s Variety Star Asia Award) and Ho Ching-yi. A particularly moving hit job sees a rich but castoff client desperately longing for one last conversation with another human being. On the opposite end is Tsz-ying (Chung Suet-ying), the over-energetic teenage girl who grows a makeshift familial bond with Chau. These plot points sound tired and clichéd, but they are made effective by Ricky Ko’s careful, ponderous gaze.
But that isn’t Ko’s only gaze, and that’s where the film’s problems stem from. The film, contrary to the slow drama I described, starts with an action scene that recaptures the former glory of the assassins through freeze-frame comic book splashes. There’s nothing wrong with that—it even has the B-movie charm of Hong Kong genre films—but that device never returns. The movie tries to mix comedy, action, and drama, but jumps between them awkwardly, resulting in hefty tonal whiplash. The techs fail to compensate: Time has the sterile, plasticized, Instagram-filter or YouTube-ready look of lazy digital filmmaking. The coverage is sub-par for a city that prides itself on outstanding action cinema; the camera moves with little motivation.
The film’s balancing problems exist even more on the script level. A quick pace is one of Hong Kong cinema’s defining attributes, but so quick it is here that the plot gets swept aside. The aforementioned premise of a suicide-assist service is totally forgotten in the second half. The film instead morphs itself into an abortion drama; there wouldn’t be a problem with it being pro-choice or pro-life if it spent a second to consider either of those options. It’s good to see a movie trust its audience, but its frequent ellipses are more like unclear lapses of logic, and the single-worded lines become clunky dialogue.
The selling point of Time isn’t experienced directing or expert screenwriting, but its cast of legends. Patrick Tse is perhaps now known for being Nicholas Tse’s father, but during his day, the father was an even bigger star than the son. At 84 years of age, he sheds his playboy image and parasitic sunglasses for a performance of toughened vulnerability. So good is his performance that Time is arguably worth watching for it alone, and it might well be Tse’s final. After six decades, he reunites with screen partner Petrina Fung, whose larger-than-life quality is congruently married with her character.
But I haven’t mentioned the third member of this trio. Lam Suet plays Chung, who the audience knows little about except that he is jobless, houseless, and in love with a prostitute 30 years his junior. Lam is the biggest character actor of Hong Kong cinema, and here he is reliably pathetic yet lovable. But at 57, he is young enough to play Tse’s son. The movie tries to sell Chau, Mrs. Fung, and Chung as people of the same generation, but anyone with even passing knowledge of Hong Kong cinema —assumedly the target audience of the film—can spot something amiss here. There are understandably few actors in their 80s who are still able or willing to act, much less fit the role, but the strange miscast of Lam threatens to rupture the relationship between the central trio that is vital to the film.
Hong Kong cinema continues to face an uphill battle, and Time’s attempt to mix action comedy with old-age drama is a particularly difficult fight. Despite promising segments and a performance by a titan, the film fails the challenge; it is appreciable for parts but not in whole. But as the film knows, even if a comeback isn’t triumphant, it is a battle worth fighting. This bittersweet imperfection of local filmmaking holds more artistic merit and humanity than many sanitized but soulless transnational products of Hong Kong–China cinema.
Time (Chinese: 殺出個黃昏)—Hong Kong. Dialog in Cantonese. Directed by Ricky Ko. First released July 15, 2021. Running time 1hr 40min. Starring Patrick Tse, Petrina Fung Bo-bo, Lam Suet, and Chung Tsz-ying.
Time had its North American premiere on August 20, 2021 at the New York Asian Film Festival. This article is part of Cinema Escapist‘s dedicated coverage of the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival.