Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review – Breaking News

January 20, 2011

Breaking News – Hong Kong, 2004

I’m not exactly sure how to interpret the character of Commissioner Rebecca Fong (Kelly Chen). She speaks in an almost icy monotone that may convey either absolute professionalism or complete indifference. She reacts to good news and bad news in the same way, and she turns away from intimacy as if it were a distraction or inconvenience that has little or no importance to her. Part of me wants to chalk this up to her being a woman in a traditionally male profession, for her aloof, dispassionate personality may enable her to both survive and thrive in such an environment. And thrive she does. Put her in front of a wall of computers, and she is a master of ceremonies, controlling the action she sees on the computer monitors and ultimately the pictures that the citizens of Hong Kong see on their television screens. If that sounds like propaganda, that’s because it is.

Rebecca Fong is one of the central characters in Johnnie To’s well-made 2004 film Breaking News. The film is very much about media relations in the Internet Age, and it depicts public opinion as being easily manipulated by those with extensive knowledge of today’s technology. All that’s needed in some cases is a cell phone equipped with a camera and Internet access. In an early scene, we see the generational difference that exists between those that have this knowledge and those that don’t. One side remains calm, knowing that a negative impression can quickly be reversed by a few positive images; the other appears nervous, unsure of their ability to weather the storm that has seen confidence in the Hong Kong police force wane considerably.

The image that causes such a drop in confidence involves a uniformed police officer raising his hands in surrender to a criminal brandishing a loaded weapon. I’m not sure that the police officer had any alternative, at least not one that didn’t result in him being shot to death a moment later. The problem is that the image of a police officer surrendering to a criminal does not instill confidence in a police force, and after the image is broadcast on TV sets all over Hong Kong, news anchors begin to question just how safe Hong Kong is. It’s a perfectly reasonable question for journalists to ask, but the fact that people are asking it is a public-relations nightmare. What is needed now, Rebecca explains, is an equally powerful, yet vastly more confidence-inducing image. In other words, “We need a good show.”

And a show is indeed what she puts on. Rows of uniformed PTU officers listening intently to their supervisors detail their mission. Carefully choreographed processions of police vans being led down city streets by squad cars with sirens wailing, calling flocks of excited pedestrians to get a glimpse of the action about to take place, much like the musical instrument of the Pied Piper. Dozens of tipped-off reporters waiting eagerly outside the hotel where the action is going to take place. And hidden cameras placed on each and every officer that will take part in the police raid so that all of the action and the arrests can be broadcast instantaneously. There’s only one problem: The villains have the same technology.

Breaking News begins with one of the most impressive shootouts I’ve seen filmed. In the scene, the camera never cuts away from the action or jumps to a different angle. Instead, the camera slowly moves towards certain characters and then away from them. It travels up to give viewers a view of the action from the sky and then down to give them an up-close view of a particular character or group. From this, viewers get a full view of the chaos taking place in front of them. The film also allows viewers to compare Commissioner Fong’s response to the events that unfold with those of Inspector Cheung (Nick Cheung). Having failed to capture the gang in the film’s opening scene - to no fault of his own - he is determined to stick with the case until he is successful, and he is rather emotional about it. To him, it is a matter of honor. This part of the film is a bit stereotypical, and there’s one scene in which you’ll chuckle slightly at just how much punishment Cheung can withstand. However, Cheung is believable in the role, and therefore, viewers will probably be able to overlook how common the role is for a film of this sort.

Breaking News, much like Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, is a film that should make us cautious about believing what we see. With the amount of things that computers can do these days and with the rapidity with which they can be done, we would be wise to question footage that is released by organizations that have a vested interest in shaping our opinions. In Wag the Dog, war footage was created in a Hollywood studio. Here in Breaking News, we see that failure can be wiped out with a single push of a button. It’s not that it didn’t happen; rather it’s that we are not meant to see it, for it would make us afraid, and then some people might lose their jobs. Towards the end of the film, Rebecca tells the leader of the gang, “Everything is a show.” It’s a sentiment that worries me. (on DVD and Blu-Ray)

3 and a half stars

*Breaking News is in Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles.

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