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Review: The Viral Factor

2012-02-07 17:09:43        Chinese Films

A scene from "The Viral Factor"


The present day. In Jordan, an International Defence Commission commando unit is charged with escorting scientist Dr. Mohammad Osama Kannar (Rassam) and his family who have just been captured by the Americans. Kannar is a specialist in viruses that could be used for biochemical warfare. The unit is attacked en route and betrayed by its leader Sean Wong (Andy On), who shoots fellow unit member Ice (Michelle Bai) dead; the bullet lodges in the brain of her colleague and boyfriend Wan Fei (Jay Chou), standing behind her. Sean escapes with Kannar. Three months later, north of Kota Bharu, Malaysia, a tanker is found with all 14 sailors dead from smallpox. Holed up in the Malaysian jungle, Sean contacts mastermind Tyler (Jared Robinson), who's in Colombia, and tells him he has Kannar: the plan is to develop the virus into a stronger form, as well as develop a vaccine, and after releasing the former, market the latter. However, while trying to escape, Kannar is killed in a car accident. In Jordan, Wan Fei learns he has two weeks to live, but chooses to leave hospital and return home to his mother (Elaine Jin) in northern China. Invalided with pelvic nerve pain, she tells him he has a long-lost elder brother, Wan Yang (Nicholas Tse), 33, whom she left behind when she walked out on her husband, Man Tian (Liu Kai-chi), with Wan Fei when he was very young. Learning his father and brother are in Malaysia, Wan Fei flies to Kuala Lumpur just as Wan Yang escapes custody before being sent to jail for armed robbery. En route, Wan Fei has an attack of head pain and is helped by a doctor, Kan Lai-shan (Lin Peng), who is a virus researcher at KL's Asia Centre for Disease Prevention & Control. On the way into town from the airport, Wan Fei and Lai-shan narrowly escape being kidnapped. That night, Wan Fei meets his father, who is looking after Wan Yang's young daughter, Changsheng (Crystal Lee). Meanwhile, Rachel is kidnapped by Wan Yang and forced to help him steal an especially virulent smallpox virus from her Centre's repository. During the shootout, Wan Fei, who happens to be nearby, becomes involved in the chase after Wan Yang, and the two subsequently end up together on the same train, to which their father has brought Changsheng. Wan Yang is on his way to meet Sean and, despite Wan Fei's urging, refuses to hand himself over to the authorities.


Just when it looked like Dante LAM was belatedly developing into a fine director of atmospheric, character-based Hong Kong thrillers (Beast Stalker(2008), The Stool Pigeon(2010), plus bits of Fire of Conscience(2010)), he and regular scriptwriter Jack NG take a sharp left turn into the globe-trotting, bigger-budgeted arena. There's nothing wrong with that, except that, on almost every level apart from Lam's roots as an action director, The Viral Factor is as routine and uninventive as its generic English title. Full of plot contrivances, and plotting that isn't believable even on a genre level, it's little more than two hours of shootouts and explosions separated by equally poorly written (and unengaging) character scenes. Both Taiwan's Jay CHOU and Hong Kong's Nicholas TSE make little individual impact, and even less mutual chemistry, as long-separated brothers on (temporarily) opposite sides of the law.

Lam and Ng's set-up is unnecessarily complicated, and exists simply to place the opening 15 minutes in the unfamiliar location (for Asian movies) of Jordan and then provide a Mainland link with a short scene set in northern China. As Chou's character walks round with a bullet in his brain and only two weeks to live, the script piles on one after another arbitrary development and melodramatic cliche before the next chase/shootout. Of the latter, the Jordan one has a gritty feel familiar from other Middle East-set movies; but those set in Malaysia, where much of the movie was shot, lack real tension beneath the evident ordnance budget (a recurrent problem when Hong Kong film-makers shoot in Southeast Asia).

Performances, from Chou and Tse downwards, are routine and, with little emotional pull to the story or characters, the action remains unengaging. Only in the final 20 minutes, starting with a helicopter chase through downtown Kuala Lumpur and finishing on a container ship, do the action scenes — as usual choreographed by CHIN Ka-lok and WONG Wai-fai- have a classic, go-for-broke Lam feel, partly because he's in a Hong Kong-like urban landscape he knows best.

On other technical levels the film is okay without being special in any way. For the writing-directing team that created Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon this is thin gruel indeed.

Source: Film Business Asia

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