BEYOND HYPOTHERMIA

1996

Written by Roy Szeto.
Directed by Patrick Leung Pak-Kin.
With Lau Ching-Wan, Wu Chien-Lien (Ng Sin-Lin), Han Sung-Woo and Shirley Wong.


BEYOND YEAR ZERO, BEYOND CHILDHOOD, BEYOND MORALITY; LOVE


Beyond Hypothermia is a tragedy. All its characters are doomed. The film opens as the dice have already been cast. The narrator explains: "I didn't know her at first. I never looked at her carefully. I had been after her to kill her. But till the last moment, I found I didn't know what I was exactly doing." End of prologue. Fade to black. For the next hundred minutes or so, we the viewers from our godlike perspectives will witness the series of events leading to this apocalyptic beginning. In the end, the circle will have been completed as it always is; fate will have run its inexorable course as it always does.

The first scene following this foreboding opening sequence establishes vividly the inner world its main protagonist inhabits; a world of ice. In the refrigerated warehouse, even the rifle she takes delivery of, an extension of her self, is encased in a block of ice. She is cold. Wu Chien-Lien plays with great sensibility the assassin who was born as we learn in the course of the film with a lower than average body temperature; another metaphor expressing her inner landscape. She was born and raised in Cambodia. This is a significant fact. Although she has no sense of identity, no memories of her early years, her origins are bound to have been a determining factor in the shaping of her moral universe. Her auntie, the only person who holds clues to her past, refers only once in the film to "that chaotic period". This is enough. We all now know very well what happened to Cambodia, in Kampuchea Year Zero and onwards. What horrors might she have witnessed? What scars would these have left? How could she have survived if not by becoming impervious to pain and cruelty, by constructing this edifice of coldness she now inhabits? She is the perfect killer. She has no permanent abode, no friendship, no past, no name. She is unknown, and to a certain extent unknowing. Yet in the blank space that is her identity lies an innate craving for this life that she feels has been withheld from her. In the bleak world she lives in, her auntie is the only person she can trust, her only arbor in the inclement season that is her life as a killer, notwithstanding the fact that it is she also who made her an assassin in the first place.

The auntie, a weary woman portrayed with subtlety by Shirley Wong, is a displaced person. Hers is a world of shadows, old photographs, faded memories, loneliness and sorrow. She is an émigré. When a fellow refugee, another middle age woman, announces that she is going back to Cambodia and asks her to do the same, she can only decline; there is nothing for her to go back to. She is the last surviving member of her family (all were lost in "that chaotic period"). Surviving is the operative word here. She has survived what is only hinted at by means that can only be guessed at. In her flight to the semblance of life she now leads in Hong Kong, the only humanity she could salvaged is embodied in the shape of her young niece. Therefore her final act of betrayal, the betrayal of her own humanity so to speak, is in itself a tragedy insofar as she cannot help herself. She is driven to treachery by what made her human in the first place; her survival instinct.

The proprietary feeling the auntie harbors toward Wu Chien-Lien's character (her only link to a world/family that is no more) is all encompassing: when the young assassin seems to become sexually restless, she is ready to offer her the release she thinks is needed. What she does not realized (or realized but does not want to accept) is that the craving her niece displays is not only sexual. What she needs is warmth, love, sympathy. Survival may be an extraordinary important part of their life (the only part the auntie acknowledges), yet it is not nearly enough. Hell may be frozen over for the assassin, yet a warm bowl of noodles in her hands following another killing is sufficient to thaw within her some kind of emotional life; a nostalgia for what she has never known.

Enters Long Shek, the noodle cart owner played by Lau Ching-Wan in another touching performance. Shek is always eager to please. He is disarming in his openness. His emotions can be read like a book. Although fearless (he is a former gang member turned good), he is also extremely vulnerable. As opposed to the assassin's targets who are always surrounded by large numbers of guards, Chek is totally defenseless, at the mercy of every one from the food critic to his nephew, a small-time gang leader. This vulnerability coupled with a genuine kindness makes him the focal point of the assassin's search for love and humanity. However, the need for protection that she perceives (erroneously or not) in him brings out of her this instinct for survival from which she cannot escape. As she tells him: "People like us never improve". Such is her fate as she walks away toward the landscape of desolation that is her inexorable lot.

Tragedy requires a nemesis. Cheu Yee-Chin fulfills this role. Played with passionate intensity by Han Sung-Woo, he is a driven character. His employer, a Triad boss who balks at involving himself and his troops in politics at the urging of other bosses ("We're not as dirty as politicians.") has a contract put on his head by those same bosses he is frustrating in their ambition. Yee-Chin's job is to protect him. He fails in doing so when Wu Chien-Lien's nameless assassin succeeds in killing him. From then on, the wheels of the tragedy are set in motion. Yee-Chin is obsessed. His honor has been blemished by his failure to protect his charge. Moreover, his loyalty to the mourning family of the deceased calls for retribution. His is the wrath of God. The men under his orders in a memorable scene in the streets of Seoul are the modern equivalent of the troops of old sent to their death by an irate king. In the course of events, he will even cause the death of the one he loves most, yet nothing will stop him. In his relentless quest for revenge (first against those who paid for the contract, then against the killer herself) his only purpose is to bring doom to all involved, himself included. As opposed to the assassin iciness, there is a passion burning in him that is inextinguishable. This point is brought home metaphorically when after being scalded by boiling water, he pours ice all over his blistering back. In the following scene, we are reminded that the burning remains when we see him wrapping himself in bandages. No balm will soothe the kind of wound he wears.

In the end, Cheu Yee-Chin and the assassin are mirror images of each other. They feel that no redemption is ever possible. The forces that are driving them, although diametrically opposite (a death wish and the will to survive), are equally beyond their control. They are only puppets in this predetermined pantomime that is their existence. Only Long Chek, the illiterate noodle vendor, in a futile attempt to rebel against the order of things exercises a level of freewill. However pitiable his grasp of the situation may seem ("We can surely make it") in view of the apocalyptic depiction of the ill-fated couple's demise, his final gesture is nonetheless the act of a man standing tall under the blind gaze of the gods, the empty sky, asserting beyond all else that love is for the pathetic creatures we may all be, not only possible but real.




That Beyond Hypothermia is such a powerful cinematic experience is due not only to the moving performance of Wu Chien-Lien, but also to the exceptional quality of Arthur Wong's cinematography, to the excellence of Patrick Leung Pak-Kin's precise direction, and of course to Roy Szeto's beautifully multi-layered script.



As a postscript, I would like to reply here to certain people who have criticized this film for its excessive violence, particularly in the final scene. Would they have criticized Sophocle for having Oedipus poking his eyes out? Or Shakespeare for the violence and gore in many of his plays? I think not.

GALLERY