When I sat down to watch Si Fei (Guilty) I really had no idea what to expect. The film was listed as a drama/romance, but the promotional material clearly hinted at a different kind of movie. I wasn't very familiar with Jill Wong's earlier directorial work either, so I decided to just take a gamble and press play. What followed was one of the best films to have come out of Hong Kong in quite a while. If Si Fei is an indication of Wong's future career, I'll be going along for the ride.
Jill Wong is one of the few female directors active in Hong Kong today. Rather than follow in the footsteps of Ann Hui or Heiward Mak, Wong carved her own path. While generally speaking female directors tend to opt for drama delivered in a more realistic manner, Si Fei is extremely raw and stylized, somewhat reminiscent of films like Gau Ngao Gau and Fuk Sau Che Chi Sei. It wasn't exactly what I expected, but boy was I blown away by it.
The only other Jill Wong film I had seen was Hong Kong comedy Oi Chut Mao, a group effort with Oxide Pang and a few other lesser known directors. Not exactly the kind of movie that would signal a film like Si Fei. Dig a little deeper though and you'll find that Jill Wong has had an extensive career as an assistant director, working with the Pangs and Pou-Soi Cheang on titles like Mon Seung, Chung Oi and Shamo. That should a least lift a tip of the veil as to how Si Fei turned out.
Si Fei follows the life of Kit, a badly disfigured serial killer with a knack for his job. He lives a secluded life, until the day he meets Ting Ting. The two hit it off and Kit takes Ting Ting in. While they are drawn to each other, they are both broken personalities who have trouble keeping a sane relationship. Ting Ting in particular is quite fickle, toying with Kit's emotions every chance she gets. Then one day Ting Ting gets kidnapped for ransom and Kit has to pull off one final job in order to save Ting Ting's life.
On the visual side of things Wong clearly took a hint from her mentors, because Guilty is one of the nicest looking films I've seen all year. Lots of yellow and green hues give it a very distinct Chinese/Hong Kong flavor, the often decaying sets are lush and intricate and the lighting is simply exquisite. Some very nice shots too while the editing is slick and snappy. Si Fei is just one endless stream of blissfully dark imagery drawing the audience into the film, keeping a perfect balance between beauty and decay.
The soundtrack too is remarkable. None of that wimpy background noise you'll find in most films, but a score that is used front and center, proudly establishing the rhythm and flow of the scenes. There's a clear electronic edge to the music, though not too outspoken. Together with the visuals it makes for a perfect audiovisual spectacle that adequately supports the themes and story while outlining a thick, almost tangible atmosphere.
With Pak-ho Chau (Kit) and Liddy Li (Ting Ting) Wong opted for relatively unknown faces. Pak-ho Chau (Kwan Yan Chut Si had some prior experience, for Liddy Li this film is pretty much her big breakthrough. Both actors do a pretty good job, Li in particular is allowed to kick some serious ass in this movie and she does so with conviction. The secondary cast is decent too, with a quick cameo of Kai Chi Liu as the most notable appearance.
Si Fei is a film that doesn't reveal its true face until very late in the game. It disguises itself as a kind of twisted romance, but it ends up a harsh and mean-spirited thriller. It's good to see Hong Kong hasn't forgotten about this genre as they're actually quite good at it, even when its commercial appeal might be lower than their regular output. While saying too much about the ending would probably spoil things, for me this was one of those rare cases where the ending actually made the film better.
I'm excited to see where Wong will go from here. Si Fei proves she is more than capable to stand on her own two feet, delivering a film that is powerful, gripping and skilfully made. If you're a fan of Hong Kong's harsher thrillers this is definitely for you, if you like directors like the Pangs or Pou-Soi Cheang don't think twice about seeing this one. If on the other hand you don't have a clue what I'm talking about Si Fei is the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with Hong Kong's darker side.