Time (Hong Kong, 2021) [NYAFF 2021]

Being the acting titan that he is, anytime Patrick Tse shows up on screen is a win for the cinematic medium. Despite being a defining presence in the Hong Kong entertainment world from the 1960s to 1980s, Tse has taken a backseat over the past three decades. And although his most memorable role in recent years is likely his turn as the evil soccer coach in Shaolin Soccer (2001), any brief appearance from such a legendary figure is always a real treat. With Ricky Ko’s Time, we’re graced with Tse starring in a feature film in what is certainly the first time in decades. The cherry on top is his reuniting with the legendary Petrina Fung, who also comes out of semi-retirement for her biggest role in years. The film does justice to this monumental moment in Hong Kong cinema, and is worth watching for that achievement alone.

After being fired from his day job as a noodle chef, Chau (Tse) is once again tasked with being a hired assassin during his twilight years. Teaming up with his old partners Chung (Lam Suet) and Fong (Fung), he soon learns that his blade-yielding skills are being used for a very different purpose. By helping seniors end their own lives voluntarily, they form the ‘Guardian Angels of the Elderly’, and quickly become an asset to a forgotten population in the city. This all comes to a halt when Chau encounters Tsz-ying (Chung Suet-Ying), a distraught teenager who seeks the services of the ‘Guardian Angels’.

Time serves as a fine directorial debut for Ko, who’s already been working as a second unit director within the industry for a number of years. While the film isn’t a definite example of any flashy creative ingenuity, its calm stylistic demeanor is very fitting and natural for the narrative at hand. Ko finds a way to let his ensemble of performers take over each scene, which is a sensible decision given the talent involved. Both Tse and Fung carry each scene they’re in by virtue of just being present, and there’s never any question that the film celebrates these rare appearances in modern day Hong Kong cinema with open arms. The mixture of comedy and drama never feels overly heavy handed either, and it’s primarily because Ko never reaches beyond the calamity of what one might artfully describe to be a ‘quiet film’.

Although Time packs in plenty of laughs and emotions, and is dramatic at times, it manages to do so without being overly showy. Demonstrating such restraint might seem like an easy task on paper, particularly with such a tame script. But factor in the fact that Tse plays a retired assassin, and the task doesn’t seem that easy anymore. But Ko still manages to fully realize the commanding presence of Tse as an aging gangster, in a rather contemplative, but never lacking in cool, type of way. Lam also has one of his most memorable roles in years, reminding audiences that he is more than capable of holding his own in more dramatic scenes, while being the subtle and often underrated comedic beast that he naturally is.

Time’s swivel to a more PG approach to violence surprisingly never takes away from the characters’ fiery actions, and simply blends in with the lighter tonal approach of the film’s primary narrative. By forfeiting more brutal depictions of violence, the film ends up supporting its inner dialogue of what it means to age gracefully, in a society that places more barriers than passages for its geriatric population. This is a story arc that most societies in modern times can relate to, with some unfortunately relating more so than others. Time certainly doesn’t shy away from criticizing the way society treats its aging citizens, but makes an effort to not paint them as helpless pawns in a cutthroat world. Even when depicting those who ultimately choose to end their own lives, the film makes an effort to afford meaning behind those decisions.

At the end of the day, Time will stand out as the film that brings back screen legends Tse and Fung in their most hefty roles in decades. But under the glamour of nostalgia, both performers make it clear that their performances, as well as the film itself, has much more to offer. From the subtle criticisms of ageism and how society (and individuals) derive meaning from life, Ko manages to squeeze out an affecting story that is both tender and meaningful. It would be silly to assume that Tse and Fung will start working regularly again, but there’s more than enough to cherish in this thoughtful narrative experience.

Time was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival.