A Witness Out of the Blue (Hong Kong, 2019) [Focus Hong Kong 2021]

A Witness Out of the Blue finds prolific star Louis Koo within his wheelhouse as a legendary criminal who ends up on the run after a robbery goes awry. However, writer-director Fung Chih-chiang has peppered a relatively straightforward narrative with plenty of off-kilter elements so his film not only stands out amongst Koo’s innumerable thrillers but serves as a welcome throwback to the gloriously eccentric Hong Kong genre fare of the 1980s and 90s.

It’s actually a two-hander since the criminal’s predicament intersects with that of Larry Lam (Louis Cheung), a financially beleaguered police detective who is forced to run errands for a loan shark having borrowed cash to open a cat shelter. Despite his affection for stray felines, Larry shares more screen time with the titular blood-red parrot who is the only witness to the murder of a junkie. The victim is soon linked to a jewellery store heist from months before which was coordinated by legendary thief Sean Wong (Koo). It was anything but smoothly executed as an employee was left paralyzed from the waist down and two people were killed, one of whom was an undercover cop. Sean is the prime suspect, yet Larry comes to believe that someone else is responsible after several encounters with the master thief suggest he is also investigating the murder. Larry’s hunch puts him at loggerheads with his superior, Inspector Yip (Philip Keung), who is fiercely determined to apprehend Sean in order to avenge the slain officer.

This is a consistently entertaining thriller with the oft-used device of two individuals approaching a case from different angles given a jolt through tonal shifts that have been less prominent in Hong Kong’s commercial cinema since it reigned itself in to cater to the Mainland China market. While parallels are usually drawn between the two investigators, regardless of their different backgrounds, the leads here have few similarities beyond their doggedness and often seem to be in markedly different films. The plot strand focusing on the typically stealthy Koo is serious and somewhat melancholic while Cheung’s is more comedic since his hapless detective is so clumsy that he farcically slips on blood at the crime scene. Although ostensibly a grounded procedural, there are ghoulish touches as Sean experiences increasingly disorientating ant-filled hallucinations while Larry has a lightly surreal dream involving the scene-stealing parrot, who he is convinced can identify the killer. Anticipated elements such as confrontations and chases are well staged, especially a cracking waterway pursuit which is captured with elan by cinematographer Xie Zhongdao.

As the investigation becomes more convoluted, Fung segues from man on the run scenario to a crafty whodunit in the Agatha Christie tradition, with Andy On, Patrick Tam and Fiona Sit making the most of limited screen time as individuals whose lives were impacted by the robbery. Unfortunately, his effort to make the film as detailed in character as it is in plot sometimes results in an odd mishmash, especially in the extraneous sitcom-like subplot which has Sean laying low by renting a room from visually impaired landlady Joy (Jessica Hsuan) whose other tenants are all octogenarians. Aside from paying homage to The Killer (1989), these warmly lit scenes provide Sean with the impetus for belated redemption as he tentatively connects with others, but his burgeoning friendship with Joy distracts from the central mystery.

On the whole, though, A Witness Out of the Blue certainly makes a refreshing change from the production line Hong Kong thrillers of recent years. Well paced and capably performed, it’s an enjoyably idiosyncratic procedural which builds to a reveal that is imminently guessable but nonetheless adroitly pulled off.

A Witness Out of the Blue is streaming as part of Focus Hong Kong from February 9-15.