This review contains unavoidable spoilers, proceed with caution!
A new Milkyway Image crime movie, Law Wing Cheong's Punished has many familiar elements. It stars many of the Milkyway regulars (Where was Lam Suet though?), and yes it covers similar ground to many of the stable's films. However the movie was not as I expected, I saw this in both a positive and negative light. It has a significantly different feel to other Milkyway crime films, much less of a stylistic action exercise, this is a serious character drama, punctuated with only brief sporadic action and a few nasty moments. Having seen Punished twice now I'm somewhere between the two points, it has plenty to like but a weak screenplay in particular, prevents the film from being the success it could have been.
Beginning as a kidnap story, the film plays with expectations early on by revealing the result of the abduction. Once this is established a non linear narrative is used to take us to various points in and around the kidnapping throughout the film's present. We then see the real meat of Punished is the revenge the ruthless Wong Ho Chiu (Anthony Wong) vows on the kidnappers and more importantly the emotional trauma his revenge wreaks on his own psyche, as bodyguard Chor (Richie Jen) tracks down the men responsible.
Starting with the negative points, Punished goes for real thematic and character based depth, more so than other Milkyway productions. Unfortunately as I have already said the screenplay is not of a high enough quality for this to be entirely successful, and worse still it takes itself so seriously that it thinks it has more depth than it actually does. In addition to this a few instances of really lazy writing threaten to derail the entire film. In the best films from Milkyway, the characters are given added depth, not necessarily through the script but more from the filmmaking style. The skill of making use of the kind of communication possible through glances and actions is a huge strength of their movies. This is not the case with Punished, the visual style is a little flat, and at least as far as the screenplay is concerned, everything is spelled out for the viewer, with the fractured timeline being the only attempt to keep the viewer on their toes.
Punished does achieve a level of depth uncommon in much of Hong Kong cinema, mostly through it's two lead actors. Anthony Wong's Wong Ho Chiu runs a hugely successful real estate company in Hong Kong (is there any other kind in HK?), however his management style is autocratic to say the least, he also expects his employee's do whatever it takes to get the job done, no matter how dirty. This leadership philosophy extends to the treatment of his family, being a dictator at home as well as at work. This all makes for what should be a completely unsympathetic lead, however Wong brings so much to the role you can't help but empathise with him no matter what he does. The scenes of conflict with his rebellious and thoroughly horrible daughter Daisy feel uncomfortably real, and it isn't hard to see where she gets her attitude from. His handling of his own disintegration, throughout the vengeance process is truly superb. Knowing what he is doing to himself but needing to see it through, if there is a better performance in a Hong Kong movie in the last year, I need to see it.
Richie Jen's Chor is somewhat of a revelation to me, he has been in some excellent films but has never really registered with me as a particularly good actor. Jen looked suitably bad ass and cool in Johnnie To's Exiled but it wasn't really a role that required much acting ability. In Punished he really stood out, a character who should be unlikeable is given complexity by Jen, and like Wong I feel it's more what the actor brings to the table than what was on the page. A sub plot of Chor's own parental problems is extremely well done, and he's completely convincing as the instrument of Wong's revenge.
Aside from the leads, Janice Man is perhaps too convincing as Daisy, she fails to elicit any sympathy whatsoever despite her predicament as she is so vile a character. She's so bad for part of the movie Wong wonders if she actually faked the abduction to claim the ransom herself! Much more sympathetic is category III veteran Charlie Cho, playing one of Wong's employees, who is pushed to breaking point and beyond.
The film is technically adept, as you would expect from a Milkyway production but without anything exceptional to stand out. The photography is fine but unremarkable, the few action sequences are nicely done without managing to be as exciting as they perhaps could have been. The best aspect of the movie outside of the acting is the score by Dave Klotz and Guy Zerafa, although it is quite a traditional soundtrack compared with other Milkyway scores.
Punished is a pretty bleak movie that is completely devoid of humour, so bleak is the film I wasn't convinced by the few moments of hope that are in there. I did really like the film but it has serious issues preventing it from being a whole hearted recommendation, particularly if you're not a fan of Milkyway's films. If you are a fan, the acting is great and it's almost enough to lift the film to a level the script doesn't really deserve to reach, however a few moments can't help dragging it back down to a solid film rather than a great one. It's an interesting diversion for the company but not an entirely successful one.