Directed by Corey Yuen
Starring Shu Qi, Zhao Wei, Karen Mok
I’m a talker. I talk to movies, I talk at the screen. It’s weird, but I do it. I was fully expecting to come into a review of So Close focused on how it’s the guiltiest guilty pleasure, how its predictability is disarming on purpose and that purpose is just north of lurid, but then it pulls a turn with 30 minutes left that had me shouting. The climax plays out and I’m sitting there with “Here she comes.” “This is where she comes in.” “She’s coming back.” “Could they really…?” and then the credits roll and I am just “What the fuck?” “Are you fucking kidding me?” “What the fuck?” It’s the next morning as I write this [diary entry] and the sting resounds still.
This is a Corey Yuen-directed action film from 2002 about “girls” who wear monochrome, kick high, fire dual pistols while upside down, and ooze sexual tension no matter the situation or relationship — cop/criminal, sisters, whatever. As critics are quick to point out, this is like the Asian Charlie’s Angels, just as one of its stars — Shu Qi — is commonly referred to as the Asian Angelina Jolie. And I imagine it’s the 2000s-era Charlie’s Angels, hailing from that lamentable period of films like Aeon Flux, Ultraviolet, Elektra, Catwoman, Kill Bill, Resident Evil, Underworld, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which went in and out of science-fiction by way of gadgets and often substituted quality with copious CGI. These are movies even I can’t handle, despite that they’re exactly what I’d make if I made films: “feminism,” according to men.
I’d like to say that So Close goes so over the top it isn’t even trying for girl power, and certainly there’s very little text here to attach a message. Does the Karen Mok character escape a patriarchal system by allying with the Zhao Wei character? Eh, maybe. Honestly, though, it doesn’t appear the three women at the center of this film live in that kind of world. They’re queens of their own domains, unbothered by male superiors or opponents, and with the know-how, technology, and kung fu to back it up. But this is already mischaracterizing the film, whose scattered concerns strike the viewer first, as if Yuen is thrusting an open box of puzzle pieces at you. We start off with a scene of “hacking,” which then flows into a slow-motion, anti-gravity fight scene. Two rules already established: the technology is impossible, and every time a woman does something hot, it’s in slow-motion.
It’s style not for style’s sake, but titillation’s, and that’s where the guilt comes in. I’m surely implicated in that, but I have to say this was quite a treat after having seen exactly one film from each of the star’s later work: Shu Qi’s The Assassin most recently, Zhao Wei’s Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, and Karen Mok’s Man of Tai Chi years ago. I was excited to see them together, and couldn’t have asked for a better style of film to buoy that crossover fan service desire (this is what The Forbidden Kingdom should’ve been, for reference). They’re perfectly cast, despite that Qi and Wei as sisters is ridiculous. I don’t even think racist people would claim they look alike. But Karen Mok is all business as a classic Hong Kong supercop (she even kills a guy by swinging on a rail and pulling the guy through like in Yes, Madam), and she smokes cigarettes and puts her feet up on the desk and teases her male partner about masturbation (?). Shu Qi is the sexy assassin who can coolly smile while flipping through the air, and Zhao Wei is the bubbly younger sister (she’s older than Shu Qi by a month in real life) who believes it’s her time to shine.
Mok wants to catch the assassin sisters, Qi wants to retire and get married, and Wei wants to step out of her sister’s shadow, a loving rivalry stretching back to a childhood captured on another gadget: the camcorder. That’s the extent of the character and the plot, and the three lines converge in a manner you can probably predict, though it still took me by surprise. I think the simplicity here puts the emphasis on the performances, where the leads can define their characters in the action (despite some early flashbacks): in turns cool, playful, confident, pining, jealous, devastated, lustful. It’s a hell of a range for an action flick, and it’s carried with a seeming trust in the gaudy material as well as a hint of subtlety. Maybe I’m too conditioned by the invisible gays of K-pop, but I wasn’t expecting that kiss at the end.
It might help you to know what happens before going in, but when the Shu Qi character gets shot in the heart, well, she dies. I had a hard time believing it, because it was the end of act two. Surely she’ll be back to save the two heroes when they’re on shaky ground with the villain (shakiness which happens, like, twice, by the way). But no, she’s dead, and it was a complicated feeling. The film’s greatest assets are the three leads, together. This is like in the ensemble show where the characters get separated, and in this case permanently (for the remaining 30 minutes of runtime). I underestimated the movie, clearly, though I’m still not sure it was the right call. Regardless, I’ll never fully recover.
This review has been pretty casual, maybe appropriately so, but see, I’m trying to reserve this space for more deliberate writing, if the videos and podcasts are more conversational by function. You don’t need a review to watch So Close. Just watch it. It’s fun and light and wild, the perfect combination of director, stars, and premise totaling low ambition: shameless commerciality, downright exploitation. And it’s got enough quirks that it isn’t some sad genre exercise like its American contemporaries. Windows shatter constantly, in horrible CGI, and the action scenes are clever, making acrobatic use of staircases, grappling hooks, etc. The oversaturated world of 2000s Hong Kong takes me back to that special era, when technology was magic upon the advent of cell phones and Internet, and we only barely had the filmmaking technology to depict it. As the ladies ascend the corporate tower in their flowing white coats and high heels, I half-expect a robot to spin out from around the corner. We got a samurai, so I suppose that’s close enough. So close.
Hey. There was a robot in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.