Here’s the Hong Kong Category III film that famously breaks the Hong Kong box-office record for the restrictive-rated movie previously set by 2011’s 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy <3D肉蒲團之極樂寶鑑> with over HK$42 million. And that is not all as The Sparring Partner <正義迴廊> even scored a whopping 16 nominations for the upcoming 41st Hong Kong Film Awards.
With the movie finally available to watch on Blu-ray, I was curious about what makes The Sparring Partner <正義迴廊> such a phenomenal hit in the first place. Besides, Hong Kong Category III films aren’t primarily known for their mainstream-friendly successes but The Sparring Partner <正義迴廊> is one of the rare beasts that succeed both critically and financially speaking.
The story — credited to Frankie Tam, Oliver Yip and Thomas Leung — is a mix of gruesome psychological thriller, courtroom drama and murder mystery — all intriguingly told in a non-linear fashion. It sure requires your full attention because the movie jumps back and forth throughout its 138-minute runtime. Inspired by the notorious real-life 2013 double-homicide case of Glory Chau and Moon Siu, the sixtysomething couple was found brutally murdered and their body parts dismembered, cooked and even microwaved. The murderer turned out to be their own 28-year-old son, their youngest one in the family named Henry Chau along with his friend, Angus Tse.
In this movie version, Henry Cheung (Yeung Wai-Lun) is arrested by the police led by Sergeant Cheung Chiu (David Siu) after they found the severed bodies of his missing parents in the old building. He subsequently confesses to the murder of his parents and we soon learn he has an accomplice — his low-IQ friend named Angus Tong (Mak Pui-Tung), who is also caught by the police later on. Angus’ sister, Tong Man-Shan (Harriet Yeung) is looking for a lawyer to defend him and Carrie Yau (Louisa So) is in charge of the case.
The trial soon takes place with two more lawyers including Allen Chu (Michael Chow) and Wilson Ng (Jan Lamb) present for the high-profile case. The movie also focuses on the panel of assigned jurors and among them includes Yip Wai-Ping (the long-missed Gloria Yip, last seen in 2013’s The Way We Dance <狂舞派>), Lee Kin-Shing (Samuel Yau) and Suen Yim-Or (Brenda Chan) — all of which come from different backgrounds and professions.
Despite the Category III rating along with its ripped-from-the-headlines as well as the obligatory elements of sex, gore and violence, Ho Cheuk-Tin — script supervisor and assistant director making his directorial debut — isn’t interested to go back down memory lane that defined the glory days of its genre in the ’90s. Instead, he takes the familiar Category III-rated storytelling and turns it into a stylish and sometimes arty take on the genre. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the fact that Philip Yung of 2015’s Category III-rated Port of Call <踏血尋梅> happens to be the producer here. Ho Cheuk-Tin has an eye for atmospheric visuals and it shows even in the otherwise typical scene of a courtroom trial, complete with expressive lighting and even moments that transported not only the lawyers but also the jury and the suspects into the crime scene.
The movie’s non-linear storytelling tends to be convoluted at times but it was forgivable, thanks to the overall engrossing narrative and acting performances all around. The latter is especially true with Yeung Wai-Lun and Mak Pui-Tung’s respective macabre turns as Henry Cheung and Angus Tse. Both actors deliver breakthrough performances that will be remembered for years to come. The movie also gets an extra boost from solid supporting turns with Louisa So’s engaging role as the defence lawyer, Carrie Yau and David Siu’s short-fused police sergeant among some of them worth mentioning here. Then, there’s Michael Chow (Man-Kin), famous for his Maang Boh role in the 1996 action-comedy Mr Mumble <孟波> returns to the big screen for the first time ever since 2004’s Forever Yours <浪漫春情>. Here, he delivers a subtle comic relief to his predominantly English-speaking lawyer role as Allen Chu.
Being a Category III movie, Ho Cheuk-Tin doesn’t shy away from its graphic violence with the murder scene of Henry and Angus killing and dismembering the elderly couple in an uncompromisingly cold and matter-of-fact manner.