THE TROUGH: A Potential Cult Classic
Much like Neil Breen's current filmography, the horribly-titled The Trough definitely has cult movie potential if it ever hits the underground festival circuit.
“I miss the taste of crimes,” says undercover cop Qiu. A perplexing punchline delivered after stealing a salad from his handler Jim (He Jiong), just one of the many hilariously baffling elements of Nick Cheung’s latest crime thriller The Trough. In his third directorial feature, genre actor Nick Cheung has taken all of the pulpiest elements from his most well known projects, such as Dante Lam’s Beast Stalker and Benny Chan’s The White Storm, and has attempted to make his own starring vehicle – one which is unfortunately more Neil Breen than Jackie Chan.
Much like Neil Breen’s current filmography, the horribly-titled The Trough definitely has cult movie potential if it ever hits the underground festival circuit, thanks to its unfocused storytelling, cheap aesthetic, bizarre characterisation and a strong focus on painting its protagonist as the coolest badass of all time (sound like any other cult classics you can think of?). Even if you don’t know that Cheung wrote, directed and acted in his own project, the incredibly irrelevant opening sequence would immediately clue you in.
Set to a twangy, hard country rock song, undercover policeman Qiu is seen waking up in an abandoned van in the middle of the desert, instantly lighting up a cigarette and reaching for a beer, just to let us audience members know what an awesome rebel this guy is. This is followed up by a comical fight with a CGI hyena, a whole stand-off that has zero bearing on the actual plot (literally or metaphorically), a tale that actually takes place in the fictional Hong Kong city of Solo Field.
Not Quite Blade Runner
Set in an undetermined future, Qiu has been assigned to watch mob boss Chen Yun (Michael Miu Kiu-wai), a demanding task that has taken its toll on the weary policeman, as seen when referencing his target as “Brother Yun,” as well as developing a damaging cocaine addiction — just one of the many plot threads that will quickly be abandoned.
What starts off as a pretty generic “conflicted undercover cop” drama transforms itself after the first 30 minutes, where a John Woo-lite shootout in a laundromat kills off all of the current established characters — except for the black trench-coat wearing Qiu of course. Before his death, Yun hypothetically asks his gang, “Better to be a thief, or a cop?,” an obvious thematic question that acts as the basis for the continuously outlandish chain of events that soon follow.
The episodic affair continues with Qiu joining a new gang, another bunch of unruly criminals who are planning to kidnap a young piano-playing child prodigy, which is when the real insanity of the story kicks in. After the abduction attempt immediately goes wrong, Qiu once again emerges to become the lone survivor in an extended car chase/shootout that, whilst it has some fun bursts of gun-play creativity, has a huge reliance on CGI enhancement (blood spurts, explosions, weather effects), which really accentuates the incompetency in the blocking and technical setups when originally filming these sequences.
Its not an understatement to state just how utterly ugly this movie is, visually, which has tried to adopt a pseudo-comic book tone through its digital photography and hideous colour grade (think a low budget Sin City), but because the scenes haven’t been lit for this type of post-production manipulation, the end result is a grainy, often distractingly garish mess of muted blues and basic action VFX plug-in effects that really amplify the amateur cinematography.
It even boils down to just fundamental elements like a barrage of CGI rain covering the composition, but our character’s umbrellas staying completely dry, highlighting the indifference to any attention to detail, both in the visuals and the narrative.
A Brand New Plot
What follows is a convoluted series of increasingly absurd situations, as Qiu finds himself uncovering the major secret of “The Boss,” the top of the mafia crime family ladder, a reveal which entails the capturing of orphaned disabled children and genetically enhancing them into becoming human hard drives. It was at this particular explanation that I realised that what had started out as a fairly disposable heroic bloodshed picture had slowly reconstructed itself into a Luc Besson science-fiction entry, with its very own ‘Leon the Professional and Mathilda’ relationship developed in the centre — a mild flash of real emotion in this absolute black hole of sentimentality.
This, once again, lasted for about 20 minutes, before Cheung clearly got bored with the idea, because during a short-lived car chase, after Qiu performs his own version of the infamous Furious 7 drive between two buildings, his new surrogate daughter is instantly killed (which for those paying attention, is clearly his fault). Qiu’s reaction, one which registers on the level of a shoulder shrug, is when The Trough descends into straight-up farcical territory, especially when her death (or her character at all), is never referenced again.
Its this constant state of inconsequentiality that points out how the script, written by Cheung and co-writer Ning Wen, has tried to shove in as many action movie ideas that it all becomes ultimately pointless, which is where it earns its potential “cult movie” status. I will say, with all of its melodramatic panache, I’m shocked that Cheung didn’t include a sexy love interest, which is usually the staple for these types of action pictures.
This is a movie which arrests attention purely through its sheer audacity, rather than any intrinsic merits. Not to spoil its final reveals, but I wanted to just list off some of the other absolutely ridiculous moments that I haven’t had a chance to touch upon yet: a metaphorical dream sequence involving windsurfing, a character being able to wirelessly hack a car compactor, a finale that takes place upon duelling hot air balloons, an unexplained spot of back-packing in Africa, a full 10 minute backstory for an antagonist that we haven’t met yet (and holds no value once revealed) and the line “The U.S.? Don’t you know who the President is now?” (which, after Detective Chinatown 2, is the second Chinese film this year to have clear dig at Donald Trump).
There’s probably more I’ve forgotten, but I can guarantee you one thing — despite all of the technical and narrative issues, you’ll never be bored watching this remarkable trainwreck.
The Trough: Conclusion
Nick Cheung’s The Trough is merely a product of its many influences, a Frankenstein of preposterous script decisions and Hong Kong action cinema tropes. For those who indulge in the “so bad its good” type of film-watching, The Trough offers enough steady laughs and pockets of incomprehensible decisions to warrant an ironic watch.
Clearly engineered as his own redefining crime epic, Cheung ambles through it all in his own inimitable way, a truly unique picture that’s somehow simultaneously cliched, generic and wholly unconventional.
What are some of your favourite Hong Kong crime thrillers?
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