‘Why are you going off at a tangent?’ asks fresh-faced police detective Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) of his veteran partner Hei (Tony Leung) over a glass of whisky at an up-market Hong Kong bar. ‘Just to distract you’, replies Hei. This early exchange effectively summarises the meandering plot of Confession of Pain, a slickly packaged, star-powered production which reunites Leung with his Infernal Affairs (2002) and Infernal Affairs III (2003) directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak under their Basic Pictures banner. While their initial collaboration was a smart and stylish thriller, its second sequel (which required some serious narrative manipulation in order to bring Leung’s deceased undercover cop back into the picture) demonstrated the law of diminishing returns, and Confession of Pain sadly continues the collective slide from superiority to mediocrity. This glossy neo-noir contains enough plot points to launch another trilogy of crime movies and everyone involved works overtime to create the appropriate atmosphere (sweeping shots of Hong Kong ring-roads suggest entanglement and inner turmoil, while Chan Kwong-wing’s superb score mixes traditional and electronic arrangements), but the convoluted narrative remains curiously uninvolving.
Confession of Pain begins in 2003, with Lei and Bong apprehending a rapist; arriving home from the bust to find that his pregnant girlfriend has committed suicide, Bong goes into a deep depression, not speaking for days and then resigning from the force. The timeline then moves forward by three years to find Hei continuing his rise through the ranks of the Hong Kong police department, while Bong is earning a living as a private detective and has developed a serious drinking problem. Both men have attractive ladies in their lives; Hei has married Susan (Xu Jinglei), the daughter of billionaire businessman Chau (Yueh Hua), while Bong is sleeping with Feng (Shu Qi), a waitress from his regular drinking den, but is still too wrapped up in the reasons for his girlfriend’s suicide to take the relationship to the next level of commitment. Hei and Bong have remained friends since the latter’s resignation and the murder of Susan’s father leads Hei to call on Bong’s professional services when the police fail to settle on any suitable suspects. Bong embarks on a booze-fuelled investigation, gradually uncovering unsavoury details regarding Chau’s past dealings in Macau and ultimately making a connection that is uncomfortably close to home.
Lau and Mak sketch their characters in broad strokes, leaving their leading men to fill in the blanks; Leung is cool and controlled, while Kaneshiro cruises through the film on the natural charm that has served him well in everything from Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994) to Shimako Satō’s K20: Legend of the Mask (2008), suggesting alcoholism by simply slouching and growing facial hair. Kaneshiro’s disheveled detective is the kind of ‘functional alcoholic’ that only exists in the movies; Bong swigs from a bottle of whisky while playing table tennis, achieves a near-perfect mental reconstruction of a murder scene while partially intoxicated, and is somehow fit enough to chase suspects up the Hong Kong back streets. If the character of Bong is supposed to be warning about the dangers of the drink, then screenwriters Mak and Felix Chong obviously forgot to inform cinematographers Lau and Lai Yu Fai who shoot Bong’s benders in soft-focus slow-motion, with Wing’s melancholic music and the non-judgmental presence of the ever-smiling Shu Qi adding to the impression that Confession of Pain is actually a thinly-veiled whisky advertisement. The leading ladies are largely wasted; Xu alternates unconvincingly between panic and persistence, while Shu seems to have sashayed in from another movie.
After the narrative machinations and tightly-wound tension of the Infernal Affairs series, Confession of Pain finds Lau and Mak in comparatively relaxed mode with personal and professional relationships being allocated just as much screen time as the murder mystery. However, there is a fine line between leisurely and lethargic, and Confession of Pain frequently crosses it; the warm friendship between Hei and Bong is nicely conveyed through the underplaying of Leung and Kaneshiro, but these characters are always so respectful and understanding of one another that there is little dramatic conflict, even when the skeletons start to come out of the closet in the final reel. Lau and Mak make the questionable choice of revealing their big ‘twist’ before the halfway mark, struggling to build sufficient suspense thereafter and enabling the audience to easily dismiss the many red herrings which are offered up en route to the eventual explanation for the murderer’s actions. While the technically credentials are apparent in every frame, the impeccable craftsmanship of Confession of Pain only serves to emphasise the absence of the genuine excitement which should be the raison d’être of such a commercial enterprise.