By Manny Araneta
“Double Vision” is the fifth film by writer/director Chen Kuo-fu, who previously helmed the comedy “The Personals” (1998). This film is one of the many Chinese/Taiwanese movies co-financed and/or distributed by Columbia Pictures during the late 90s and early 2000s, along with other notable films like “Double Team” (1997) and “Time and Tide” (2000). This film was also screened at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, under the Un Certain Regard section.
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The film follows the plight of downtrodden and burnt out cop Huang Huo-tu (Tony Leung Ka-fai) as he is tasked with solving a series of gruesome but inexplicable murders. In one of them, a businessman apparently freezes to death in his very hot and humid office and in another, a woman is burnt alive, even if there are no traces of fire or damage to be found. When the latest victim turns out to be an American priest who was smuggling arms, the FBI joins the fray, represented by Agent Kevin Richter (David Morse). Now they must unmask a serial killer who is influenced by Taoist principles, particularly the idea of the different forms of hell and suffering. But as the story unfolds, the detectives soon discover that the evil will soon branch out to their own personal lives.
Director Chen Kuo-fu and writer Su Chao-pin are at the top of their game here. What could have been merely an Asian copycat of the film “Se7en” (1995) is steeped in Taoist lore that becomes its own larger and monstrous creature of a movie. In “Se7en”, one gets the feeling that the entire scheme is borne out of personal hatred of the world; in “Double Vision”, the stakes feel much higher and the threat is ominous and ambiguous, fulfilling the requirements of a good horror film antagonist. The film also boasts a plethora of well-directed scenes, such as the crime scene investigations, the eerie presentation of Richter at the FBI Academy, the bonding moments of Richter and Huang etc. It must also be mentioned that there is an amazing sequence in the middle of the film that is filled with shocking and gory violence, which would immediately put to shame most if not all serial killer movies in terms of onscreen bloodletting. Suffice to say, the carnage presented in this sequence is the stuff nightmares are made of.
In terms of plot development, this movie moves along a linear path, and that is a good thing, since there is a rich mythology that is being mined, which would have been wasted by needless posturing and re-arranging of scenes. We follow with the investigation conducted by the characters through every step and we get to know the details surrounding the case together with the two main characters. As the film goes on, we even get to know both men a little better, with scenes highlighting their personal struggles and goals. This is simply classic direction: simple, straight and to the point. In many films and thrillers, this is also present, but the same is cliché and over exaggerated. In this movie, the east meets west vibe keeps it vibrant and alive.
Since this a serial killer movie that keeps its perpetrator hidden, the brunt of the acting is borne by its leads, especially Leung and Morse. Leung is a class act, and if one is to examine his filmography, he has played ALL types of characters throughout his long and storied carrier, from a weakling victim in “Prison on Fire” (1987), to a flashy, murderous, loud and unpredictable gangster in “Election” (2005). In this movie, he essays the role of a burnt out cop who also has family issues to deal with. When faced with the case at hand, he remains stoic and unwavering, but still hurt. This is played to the hilt by Leung who conveys the clash of duty and personal life with aplomb. Moore, on the other hand, plays it straight as the FBI agent and thankfully does not go overboard with the requisite fish-out-of-the-water scenes. He plays as Leung’s equal and it benefits the plot as they do not have to go through the tired “incompatibility” routines of Hollywood films.
The film was shot by veteran Hong Kong Cinematographer Arthur Wong Ngok tai, and it shows with the beautiful and clear visuals co-existing with the vile murders. Nothing is kept from the viewer in this movie and every little detail is presented with clarity. The music by Cincin Lee, when combined with the visuals, forms a kind of otherworldly miasma that envelops the viewer: we literally cannot believe that these events are happening in Modern Taiwan. The music also contributes to the ending (which I will not reveal), as it evokes a sad and strange feeling that you can’t easily shake off. The editing done by Chen and Wei Te-sheng sustains the building tension and in other moments, lets the scene flow as is during the numerous exposition scenes.
“Double Vision” is a deep and disturbing serial killer thriller, filled with great performances and grounded on a unique religious perspective.