starring Chung Suet-ying, Lam Suet, Patrick Tse, Petrina Fung
screenplay by Ho Ching-yi, Lam Ka-tung
directed by Ricky Ko
by Walter Chaw Ricky Ko's Time is perched a little uneasily between broad slapstick and heartfelt melodrama, and while arguably these are the two modes that define Charlie Chaplin's shtick, the delicateness of that balance is one explanation for why there's pretty much only the one Charlie Chaplin. Its Chinese title meaning something like "take a hit out on twilight," Ko's flick opens with some throwback Hong Kong action as a trio of hired killers show their stuff in colourful, comic-book-interstitial-aided, '70s-era vignettes: the master of the Karambit Knife, the master of the barbed chain-whip, the portly getaway driver/comic relief--roles each played at some point in their prolific careers by Hong Kong legends Patrick Tse, Petrina Fung Bo-Bo, and Lam Suet, reprised here after a fashion as the film flashes forward to catch up with them well into their dotage. Chau (Tse) uses his knife skills now to slowly, very slowly, slice noodles into broth at a hole-in-the-wall cafe; Fung (Bo-Bo) fronts a lounge act at a geriatric disco; and Chung (Lam) whiles away his hours in the company of an in-call prostitute he hopes one day to marry. Fung's the only one of them, really, who isn't all but waiting to die. When Chau gets replaced by a noodle-making robot, Fung offers him a job--a hit, in fact, a last call to glory that Chau answers by practicing his knifing on a log. He's still got it: slowed considerably, but not squeamish about murder for hire. Turns out, his target is an old woman who just wants to get it over with.
Given the lightness of its tone, Time surprises with the crispness of its blue melancholy. The anti-heroic trio put out one of those tear-off flyers and find business to be booming. The elderly, abandoned and feeling vestigial, can't wait to check out, and Chau obliges. "Death is better than debt," one customer declares, making the worries of Hong Kong's elders the same as America's. Capitalism, when it's working properly, makes paupers of all but 1% of us, and it's currently working properly in Hong Kong. (It's working even better in the U.S.) One day, Chau's mark turns out not to be knocking on death's door, but a young girl, Tsz-Ying (Chung Suet-Ying), living by herself and recently left by a no-account beau. What better way to commit suicide than to hire a professional killer? Chau balks but eventually takes her in, though he draws the line at teaching her his trade. She argues that when Chau dies, there will be no one to honour his legacy as a great knife-man. It serves the plot, of course, but it's also an extra-textual awareness that Tse is a member of a dying generation of Hong Kong action stars growing long in the tooth in an industry fast becoming unrecognizable under Mainland rule. I'm a little surprised that Time escaped the censor's eye: In its critique of the lack of social safety nets, placing the blame solely at the feet of the government and the disintegration of traditional family bonds, it's not that philosophically removed from Red Sorghum.
Its climactic action sequence takes place at a back-alley abortionist's studio and it's as lawless as one might imagine. As the good doctor moves a young woman's legs apart and begins to lean in, Chau and Fung burst into his lobby, raining chaos on the thugs assembled there. It's anti-abortion, I think, but even if inadvertantly, it's also commentary on the dangers of criminalizing a medical procedure for women. Though abortion is legal in Hong Kong, the throughline of the film is that healthcare is price-prohibitive for many, and so this decision to go off the grid for help speaks to the plight of Americans as well. There's even some grist in this sequence about the failures of the previous generation in providing proper support for the current one. You don't have to dig very deep to find that Time is, well, timely. Affecting, too, and smart about the myriad humiliations of getting older. Chau is rescued from an uncomfortable exchange with the cops when Tsz-Ying masquerades as his granddaughter, chiding him for wandering off in his demented wilfulness. Being old and broken-down is the minority all of us will join if we only just fail to die: our deeds unremembered, our skills passing into legends discounted before being forgotten entirely. When my dad died, I had trouble reconciling the notion that all of that knowledge and experience vanished with him. I still do. I think this is where a lot of our collective desire for an afterlife comes from. But there is only this, and Time suggests we shouldn't be in such a rush for the inevitable. It's good.