Soi Cheang a.k.a. Cheang Pou-soi is a director whose name(s) get my attention because he made one of the great modern action films, KILL ZONE 2 a.k.a. SPL 2: A TIME FOR CONSEQUENCES (2015) – a masterpiece in my book. He has a bunch of other ones I need to catch up with, but I enjoyed his car movie MOTORWAY (2012), and one that’s maybe a little more informative here, the 2007 manga adaptation SHAMO, which I would describe as an evil fighting tournament movie. Its protagonist is the usual underdog fighting against the odds, except he’s also a murderer, he has no sense of honor, and he does not seek or receive redemption. Bad person, good athlete, the end.
For almost its entire runtime, Cheang’s 2021 serial killer thriller LIMBO is even grimmer. It has between one and three characters you can root for, depending on your level of forgiveness, but its story and the world it takes place in – a fictional garbage-strewn neighborhood in Hong Kong – are the bleakest of bleak. The black and white cinematography by Cheng Siu-Keung (INVINCIBLE DRAGON, IP MAN 4: THE FINALE) gives it a moody noir feel at times, gothic horror at others, but mostly just bringing a uniformity to frames crammed with chaotic visual detail. (The screengrabs here will be hard to make out in miniature, and you do get plenty of breathers from that kind of busy-ness in the movie, but I chose them to give you an impression of the incredible production design.)
Will Yam (Mason Lee, DEAD PIGS) is a rookie cop put in charge of the team trying to find out who’s been cutting off women’s hands and leaving them in the garbage. Will looks much younger and cleaner than his new #2, the grizzled veteran Cham Lau (Lam Ta Kung, a.k.a. Gordon Lam, EXILED, VENGEANCE, DRUG WAR, FIRESTORM, THE BRINK), and he wears a very nice suit (with vest) even when they go out to comb through muddy piles of garbage looking for evidence or remains. He almost immediately picks up a bag that breaks and soaks his feet in nasty garbage juice, but he doesn’t complain, and he keeps going.
All they know is the hands are cut off with a rusty, blunt tool, wrapped in two year old newspapers, and left in places with a specific horrible odor. While questioning the parole officer of one of the victims, Cham is furious to learn that a young woman named Wong To (Cya Liu, SAKRA) was released early from prison for good behavior, and he goes to find her, ignoring Will’s questions like “Who’s Wong To?,” “What case is this?” and “What’s going on?” He tracks her to a parking garage running an auto theft ring but instead of doing anything about them he tries to run her down in his SUV and stops maybe a foot or two from crushing her against a wall.
“I only stole a car! Why kill me?” she cries, and then she sees his face and gets even more terrified.
What we and Will will learn over time is that Wong To is a former drug addict who did time for manslaughter because she ran over Cham’s wife (Iris Lam Hiu-Tung, PARADOX), who remains hospitalized in a vegetative state. Overcome with guilt, Wong To tells Cham she’ll be his informant, and he responds by punching and kicking her to the ground half a dozen times and slapping the phone out of her hand as she reads off the names and phone numbers of criminals in her contacts.
When Cham accepts her offer he intentionally endangers her and gets her beaten up. She leads them to various underworld figures connected to the victims, trying to hide her face from them, not having much luck. She’s attacked by a mob, dropped out a window, cornered in an alley, on her knees begging for her life until she has to stab a guy in the foot (shouldn’t’ve worn sandals for this, dipshit) and slash away hammer and stick attacks in the style of a panicked cat. After Will tries to help she ends up running off with his gun and losing it in a gutter.
Here it reminded me of Kurosawa’s STRAY DOG a little. Will is desperately trying to get his gun back to save his job. Cham handcuffs Wong To to a car door while he goes to help. When he walks away, and she’s crying “Please forgive me,” you can see him hesitate a little. And sure enough while the detectives are digging through trash piles, the killer finds Wong To and the gun, and takes them both. I assumed Cham and Will would think she gave them the slip, but the thing is… they can smell that the killer was there. The same smell from all the crime scenes. Even vengeful Cham has an oh shit what have I done look on his face when he realizes what happened.
For the two cops it becomes a race to identify the killer and find Wong To. For Wong To it’s a fight to survive. And then it’s a long, messy fight in the rain. I didn’t think of this as an action movie at first, but there’s actually a whole bunch of it, it’s just not martial arts. It’s sloppy, inelegant, bruising fights that never seem choreographed. Slapping and wrestling and pummeling more than doing specific moves. The action choreographer is Jack Wong Wai-Leung (LEGENDARY ASSASSIN, SHAMO, WOLF WARRIOR II).
Mason Lee is the son of director Ang Lee. He made his movie debut as a baby in THE WEDDING BANQUET, but otherwise his only role in one of his dad’s movies was in BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, after he’d already played Teddy in THE HANGOVER PART II. It was announced in 2022 that Mason Lee had been secretly training for three years to star in a Bruce Lee biopic directed by his dad. I have a hard time picturing that, but I was impressed by him in LIMBO. He has a cold stare and presence that contrast well with his boyish appearance. You underestimate him.
Lam has the more complicated character, the tormented one, the sympathetic maniac. But the real knockout is Liu, a mainland actress in her first leading role, who won best actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards for this. It seems like an absolutely grueling role, as physical as any horror movie, plus full on fight scenes with weapons and beat downs. I actually worry about her, it sounds like she got knocked around quite a bit to make it look real, and some of these scenes had to have been extremely unpleasant.
I have to warn that not only does the killer keep Wong To tied up in garbage next to a couple corpses, but he rapes her. He turns out to be named Yamada Akira (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, IP MAN, MANHUNT), and he’s every NIMBY’s fantasy, an immigrant mentally ill homeless serial killer rapist weirdo (or, as Wikipedia puts it “a waste picker with Oedipus complex and acrotomophilia”). He overstayed his visa, stopped paying rent, left rather than being evicted, started collecting garbage and indulging in his fetish for stumps and severed hands. He has sort of a lair strewn with mannequin parts and with hundreds of gloves hanging from above. And also a collection of wristwatches? If this was a lesser serial killer movie or a throwaway Batman issue he’d be called The Handy Man.
In the hallowed slasher movie tradition he’s all messed up by and obsessed with his mother, and Wong To figures that out and uses it against him. It’s a mystery/police thriller but there’s a serious TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE feel here, that sense of falling down into Hell and just barely climbing out through miles of sticker bushes. I’ve seen LIMBO described as nihilistic, but I think it only seems that way because the tunnel has to get so dark that the dim little flashlight at the end will seem like the sun itself. For all three of our leads there’s a Final Girl sense of hope in the very act of physically overcoming and outliving this killer, and for Wong To especially it’s about much more than survival.
Throughout the movie she keeps saying “I don’t want to die,” pleading for mercy from Cham, from the criminals she betrayed, from the maniac. In those moments it means she doesn’t want them to murder her, but in the bigger picture it means she wants to live. She knows she fucked up bad. She wronged someone, ruined his life. Though she did her time for that, it’s not enough for him. But what is she supposed to do now, die? She doesn’t want to, so all she can do is find a way to keep living. And she does. She survives the torment of the psycho killer and also the test of the psycho cop. She makes it through the gauntlet and finds forgiveness at the end of it. A rebirth. An escape from limbo. And I think Cham does that too. It’s a horrific movie, and a beautiful one.
I think LIMBO is truly great, I really loved it, but I don’t know how many people I will personally recommend it to. Most people I talk to won’t want to watch a movie this punishing. So it’s interesting that in Hong Kong it’s not some disreputable “oh dude, you wanna see something really fucked up?” kinda movie – in fact, it’s one of the big award winners. The Donnie Yen movie RAGING FIRE won best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards that year, and the Anita Mui biopic ANITA won the most awards, but LIMBO won second most. In addition to best actress for Liu it won for art direction, cinematography and screenplay (which was written by Au Kin-Yee [RUNNING ON KARMA, MAD DETECTIVE] and Shum Kwan-Sin, based on the novel Wisdom Tooth by Lei Mi.)
After the triumph of SPL 2 eight years ago, Cheang directed two big budget, FX-driven sequels in mainland China (MONKEY KING 2 and 3). In an interview with Mubi he said “they’re bigger-scale movies and after a while it got a little bit tiresome. So that’s why I want to come back to Hong Kong, to produce a movie of a different scale, a smaller scale, for a change.”
In that sense it’s a little like Hollywood – the idea that a movie on this scale would be considered small is pretty crazy. But movies like this are the best of both worlds – accomplished directors who know how to be entertaining, but also have a vision, getting a chance to do something with great production values but that doesn’t have to compromise for a wide audience. At the time of LIMBO, Cheang expressed concern about the future of Hong Kong cinema, and that year marked the start of new censorship laws that have already prevented the releases of many movies (to show them could result in three years in prison and a HK $1 million fine). Despite these conditions, Cheang stayed there to make this year’s MAD FATE and the long anticipated action movie TWILIGHT OF THE WARRIORS: WALLED IN (formerly KOWLOON WALLED CITY), one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies of all time, but not much more than half the cost of MONKEY KING 3.
I hope Hong Kong, and other places, can keep the tradition alive. Maybe not always this bleak, but sometimes. We need different flavors.