TIME AND TIDE (2000)
A streetwise young man becomes a bodyguard to score quick cash, befriending a disillusioned mercenary...
The sheer energy of Time and Tide is its biggest plus and, for those who pay attention, there’s a story buried in there, too. At its core is a quirky romance following two unconventional Hong Kong couples as their destinies collide and entangle. That narrative could’ve made a standalone film, but director Tsui Hark only allows us to glimpse key moments in the briefest of interludes between action that ranks amongst the greatest you’re likely to see. Nevertheless, those moments seem to ring true and really anchor the furious and sometimes confusing combat sequences.
Tyler (Nicholas Tse) is quickly established as a streetwise youngster trying to lift himself up from the city’s sordid underbelly. Whilst working at a late-night bar he reveals his kindly nature by trying to console a girl who’s just broken up with her girlfriend. One thing leads to another and, after a disastrous drinking contest, they awake in his squalid apartment with no memory of what transpired the night before. Rather than admit he’s forgotten her name, he checks through her things for ID and sees her police pass, but Jo (Cathy Tsui) seems as keen to get away as he does to see her leave.
Despite Jo mending her relationship with her previous partner and avoiding Tyler, he can’t seem to push her form his mind. Nine months later, he learns she’s expecting a baby and is convinced he’s the father. Compelled to step up to his responsibility, he realises he’ll need to earn more to provide for the mother and child, even if they’re not in a relationship. So, Tyler’s definitely the good guy here, but he’s prepared to cross the line a little when he signs-up with an unscrupulous ‘security’ outfit run by ‘Uncle Ji’ (Anthony Wong).
He’s assigned as the driver for Ah-Hui (Candy Lo), another young woman at a similar stage of pregnancy to Jo. She’s the daughter of a Hong Kong tycoon and her new husband is Jack (Wu Bai), whom Tyler already knows as a nightclub singer. What he doesn’t know is that Jack’s an ex-mercenary trying to go straight after some sort of botched bank heist in South America. Things get complicated when Jack’s old associates try to use their leverage to compel him to assassinate his father-in-law who’s under the incompetent protection of Uncle Ji’s firm.
So, that’s the set-up, and even though Tsui Hark handles it well, he knew it wasn’t what the audience would be turning up for. His first cut of the film ran to nearly three-hours, but he decided to excise much of the relationship drama and tighten up what was left in. This means the character development seems rushed. But it works well enough, and we do become emotionally invested in their stories. Tsui Hark even resorts to montages and more visually interesting means of hurrying things along such as split-screen and superimposed sequences. If that sounds inventive, just wait until he gets to the audacious action!
Of course, Tsui Hark built his reputation as one of the great action directors on wonderfully OTT martial arts movies such as Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), The Swordsman (1990), the Once Upon a Time in China franchise in the 1990s, and the Detective Dee film series since the 2010s.
He’s also known as the producer who helped define the Hong Kong gangster genre with a hand in the seminal A Better Tomorrow (1986), and The Killer (1989), two films that helped launch the international careers of their director, John Woo, and star, Chow Yun-Fat. Time and Tide fits well into this heritage. Though Tsui Hark’s action is more ‘realistic’ (I use the term loosely), brutal, and clumsy than Woo’s super-stylised and balletic bloodshed, it’s just as beautifully choreographed. This time the fights are orchestrated by legendary Kung-Fu coordinator Xin Xin Xiong, whom Tsui Hark wanted back after they’d worked together on the Once Upon a Time in China films.
When Jack tries to turn his no-win prospects around by double-crossing his ruthless mercenary ex-colleagues, his wife is then targeted. He has to think fast to save her and make a getaway with stolen mob money, hoping to make a fresh start. He also finds himself pitted against his new friend, Tyler, in an escalating conflict between rival gangs, and the police.
Around the mid-point there’s a ridiculously well-planned action sequence that takes things to an architectural scale in a volatile chase leaving a trail of destruction through several apartment blocks. I’d never seen a bad guy used as a counterweight to aid transition between floors whilst simultaneously beating him up with a flight of stairs! The fantastic fun of the fight is tempered with some collateral and even kids, caught in the crossfire, aren’t exempt in this movie. It all helps to highlight the differences between the good, the bad, and the totally evil.
The action is shot from multiple viewpoints, including through the telescopic sights of several snipers, and when Jack rappels down one of those open ventilation shafts the camera plunges down after him. This vigorous sequence also marks a turning point for some of the key characters who are forced to choose allegiances, and involves Tyler escaping an explosive situation with the aid of a domestic appliance. The setting for all this also gives a glimpse of the ‘real’ Hong Kong and contrasts nicely with the more ‘public’ façade of the city, where the finale will play out…
Recovering from this climatic, adrenalin-pumping action, one realises there’s a good hour or so left to go and wonders how things can possibly escalate satisfactorily. No need to worry, we’re in safe hands with Tsui Hark. Yet to come is a potential siege situation in Kowloon’s Hung Hong Station. Only this time a S.W.A.T team are thrown into the mix, led by a tough but fair commander (Jack Kao). He manages to quickly assess the dynamics of the situations and enlists Jack’s help to rout out the merciless mercenaries when the conflict spills into the neighbouring Hung Hong Coliseum. This gets even more complicated when Ah-Hui goes into labour whilst being helped to escape by Tyler and they have to work together in order to fend off attackers whilst delivering the baby. It all gets rather visceral!
I can say no more without spoiling things for anyone coming to this minor classic fresh. But, then again, they’ll almost certainly need to watch it more than once to get what’s going on. The narrative’s cleverly cohesive, but so dense that I think Tsui Hark expects this to be viewed several times and really gives his audience credit for a high level of visual literacy. He’s even thrown in a rich existential subtext addressing morality, selfhood and breaking the traditional generational cycle of obligation, if you really want to look for it! He’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourites and his influence is palpable in the unconventional story structure of Pulp Fiction (1994). It seems, this time, Tsui Hark’s taken up Quentin’s gauntlet and tried to outdo him at his own game.
The four key players were relative newcomers and yet all turn in fine performances. Candy Lo is particularly unclichéd as the sensitive, though heroically stoic, Ah-Hui. She deserved her two Hong Kong Film Awards nominations, for ‘Best New Performer’ and ‘Best Supporting Actress’. Likewise, it was Cathy Tsui’s second appearance and though she shows great promise she would only go on to make four more films.
Nicholas Tse had at the time only a handful of appearances, and was better known as a singer-songwriter, but would go on to become a major martial arts star, racking up another fifty films to date as well as becoming a celebrity chef. Wu Bai was also well-known as a singer and this marked his first major role. Apparently, Tsui Hark was so happy to land him for the role that he rewrote the script to accommodate his personality and capitalise on the image he’d created as a pop star with his band China Blue. He also contributed to the soundtrack and wrote a brand new “Happy Birthday” song for a lovely little moment that established the relationship between his and Tse’s characters.
Time and Tide came at a point in Tsui Hark’s career when he’d briefly fallen out of fashion. Some had dismissed him as a sell-out after he directed two back-to-back vehicles deliberately aimed at the US market, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. With the official handover of Hong Kong from United Kingdom administration to the People’s Republic of China happening mid-1997, many Hong Kong directors had their sights set on Hollywood and, admittedly, Double Team (1997) and Knock Off (1998) aren’t without their own fans! Perhaps, though, that’s why Time and Tide hasn’t really been talked about as much as Tsui Hark’s earlier classics. So, two decades on, this new Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment is a timely chance to reassess what is clearly a strong work from a formidable action director.
HONG KONG | 2000 | 114 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | CANTONESE
director: Tsui Hark.
writers: Tsui Hark & Koan Hui.
starring: Nicholas Tse, Wu Bai, Anthony Wong, Joventino Couto Remotigue & Candy Lo.