I didn't have a freaking clue what I was watching, but I like it.
Firstly, the director. Tsui Hark has been a big name in Hong Kong cinema since the 1980s, helping to launch among others the careers of John Woo, Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat. He's done wuxia SF murder mystery (The Butterfly Murders), martial arts comedy about cannibalism (We're Going to Eat You) and nihilistic, violent films with political subtext that got him censored by the British colonial government (Dangerous Encounter of the First Kind)... and that's just his first three releases. He's been called a sell-out for doing crowd-pleasing blockbusters. He's gone to Hollywood and done Jean-Claude van Damme films. No one likes him all the time, but he's a name to follow and I've heard good things about his recent Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
Time and Tide was Tsui Hark's first Hong Kong film in a few years, not having made one since 1996. This and The Legend of Zu (2001) were action-packed cult hits that didn't do that well at the box office.
This is easy to understand. In a nutshell, what you'll watch here is the car crash of two or three brilliant films. Each on their own is excellent. They have some terrific scenes, full of character, spark and freshness. However he'll regularly abandon Film A because he's about to have way more fun with Film B, leaving the audience desperately wondering how this all fits together. Apparently the script kept being rewritten during production and even post-production to fit around Tsui Hark's casting choices and his dissatisfaction with his three-hour first cut. He ended up trimming an hour from it.
I have no difficulty in believing any of this. Let me summarise the plot as best I can.
1. Nicholas Tse is a likeable young man who gets a cop pregnant (Cathy Tsui) one night when they're both drunk and then keeps trying to give her money and support her, in the face of her violent hostility. She says she's a lesbian. This is a wonderful plot thread. Tsui has an impressive overreaction to waking up in a strange man's bed and she gives Tse hell for trying to be a nice guy, yet at the same time she's likeable. I loved watching them both. This is a strong human story that gives powerful dramatic motivation to both characters.
2. Nicholas Tse is however also, as it happens, working for a bodyguard company run by a former loan shark and loser. They have crazy woman clients for whom Tse does something nuts that ends in a vomit gag. They also have rich, powerful clients who need protecting against assassination, which is tricky because this guy has enemies who go in for guns, grenades and torturing people by cutting off their toes. This is disorientating. We'll be getting into Story 1 with Tse and Tsui, when suddenly the film shoots off for a twenty-minute action set-piece in which it wouldn't be surprising for Tse to die at any point... only afterwards to come back to Story 1 as he pushes a roll of the money he's earned under Tsui's door.
3. Candy Lo and Wu Bai are another couple with a baby on the way, except that these two are married. Lo's father is that aforementioned rich bastard, who's not above calling his son-in-law "riff-raff" and having him thrown out of a party. As it happens though, this "riff-raff" comment considerably understates the matter. Wu Bai is a trained killer with ties to South American and Chinese mercenaries. This offers thematic parallels with Story 1, while at the same time mirroring Story 2 in their action movie protagonists.
4. Bloody hell. Okay, I lost it here. Tse goes up against a scary dude and you're astonished to see him not dead every five seconds or so, while the carnage going down elsewhere is so efficient that I started wondering if the mercenaries were up against a SWAT team. They weren't. I know this because shortly afterwards the police showed up and sent in a real SWAT team. You wouldn't put tuppence on the survival of any of these guys, including the police. Things go to hell in ways you won't see coming, then immediately get trumped. The exploding CGI building is unconvincing, but you've got to love the gunfight that takes place while abseiling down the outside of it.
As an action spectacle, it's spectacular. I was amazed. However at the same time Tsui Hark invests his overblown material with humanity and emotional realism, the culmination of which is my favourite ever baby delivery scene. Imagine everything you wouldn't want going on when giving birth to your first child. Nope, not enough. You're not even close. Note the trigger event that gets a certain character turned into swiss cheese, for instance.
I'd recommend this, but with radioactive warning stickers. Plot coherency should not be expected. Structurally it's like some kind of Victorian medical freak in formaldehyde, with three heads and six arms. You hardly notice the mish-mash of languages: Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, English and Portuguese. Tsui Hark is a maniac. However at the same time he gets away with it, because his character work is so strong that you keep watching and stay emotionally invested even when you don't know what the hell's going on. The film sparks. Individual scenes will hook you and you'll be wanting to know what happens to Tse, Tsui, Bai and Lo even when you can't tell what's happening right now. This was nominated in six categories at the Hong Kong Film Awards and was chosen by the French 'Les Cahiers du cinema' as one of the year's ten best movies. What's more, I can understand the point of view.