On Christmas Eve, the last day at the morgue for pathologist Dr Nick Chan (Nick Cheung) and his intern Lynn (Yang Zi) is interrupted when three masked gunmen (Richie Jen, Feng Jiayi, Carlos Chan) hold them hostage in an attempt to find a bullet lodged in a recent corpse; that of a Triad leader’s daughter. Nick and Lynn must hold out against their attackers as more details emerge about their backgrounds and reasons for finding the bullet.
Veteran Hollywood action film director Harlin, best known for helming high-octane pictures such as Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, appears to be an ideal fit for Hong Kong cinema. His predilection for over the top action sequences overlaps nicely with the former colony’s specialisation in stylish martial arts and gangster films. In particular, the developing hostage situation provides Harlin with ample opportunities to provide inventive action and memorable deaths on a par with the icicle stabbing in Die Hard 2. The most notable example involving medical equipment is prolonged for maximum impact.
However, despite the Hollywood talent behind the camera, the script contains enough of Hong Kong cinema’s idiosyncratic humour and melodramatic plotting to make the film more of a distinctly local product in comparison to recent co-productions with Mainland China, which often erase Hong Kong’s individual cultural identity. Nick’s early morbid conversations with the corpses that he dissects is particularly reminiscent of the kind of darkly comic humour often found in the notorious Category III horror films of the early 1990s.
In addition, the multiple plot twists found in the second half that reveal more of the villains’ background and motivations resemble the rapid-fire narratives of 80s and 90s Hong Kong action films, which often employed such tropes to maintain the attention of local audiences. Whilst those unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema may find these narrative elements somewhat implausible, they work to maintain the film’s rapid pace, which at just over an hour and a half long is a welcome alternative to the comparatively sluggish pace of many recent Hollywood blockbusters.
Cheung, best known to Hong Kong action fans for his roles in the Johnnie To thrillers Breaking News and Election, effectively conveys Nick’s transition from a world-weary bereaved widower to an unlikely action hero who fights to stay one step ahead of his opponents. Taiwanese actor Jen provides the character of the lead gunman with a quietly menacing quality that not only contrasts with his more buffoonish partners but also gradually gives way to a more manic and unhinged quality as the film progresses. Mainland Chinese actress Yang also skilfully depicts Lynn’s ability to hold her own physically and verbally against her captors without the script making a big deal of her ability to do so – a positive quality often found in Hong Kong action films from which Hollywood could learn.
Ultimately, Bodies at Rest isn’t what you would call an action extravaganza, but its tight pacing and impressively-staged action sequences show that both Harlin and Hong Kong action cinema still have a lot to offer audiences in 2019.
UK Premiere Screening at Filmhouse Edinburgh Fri 21 Jun 2019