Sparring Partner, The (2022) Review

Sparring Partner, The (2022) Review

Theatrical poster “The Sparring Partner”.

Director: Ho Cheuk-tin
Cast: Alan Yeung, Mak Pui-tung, Louisa So, Michael Chow, Jan Lamb, Gloria Yip, Jimmy Wong, Choi Tze-Ching, Au Ka-Man, Hui Siu-Ying, Franchesca Wong
Duration: 140 mins.

From Paul Bramhall

When Hong Kong first introduced the Category III rating in 1988, indicating that the title in question could not be viewed by anyone under the age of 18, few could have foreseen that by the 1990s, the term Cat III had practically become a genre in its own right. Increasingly, real-life crime has been used as source material to create gratuitously gory entries that appealed to audiences with a mix of violence and excitement. 1992 Doctor Lamb told the story of serial killer Lam Kor-Wan, a taxi driver who picked up and killed four women in 1982, while in 1993 The story never told recreated the 1985 Eight Immortals restaurant murders, in which a gambler brutally murdered a family of ten at the restaurant of the same name.

In the 2000s, though, the true-crime thriller Cat III was on its last legs, with entries as pitiful as 2001’s There’s a secret in my soup, which used the Hello Kitty murder case from just 2 years earlier as its source, sounding a death knell for the once infamous subgenre. It wasn’t until 2015 that the genre made a comeback thanks to director Philip Yung Port of callwhich told the story of Wong Ka-Mui, a 16-year-old girl who had become involved in the world of paid dating, and was killed by one of her clients in 2008. Yung’s blunt approach to the material, combined with Christopher Doyle images that fully embraced the gorier elements, demonstrated that Hong Kong could still make hard-edged Cat III crime thrillers. It may have taken 7 years, but in 2022 it would be Yung who would step into the producer’s chair for The training partneranother Cat III production trying to adapt a real crime incident for the screen.

This time the inspiration came from the 2013 murder of a couple in their 60s, whose remains were found chopped up, cooked (to be precise in the microwave) and found in lunch boxes in a Tai Kok Tsui apartment . The couple’s son had filed a missing persons report saying they planned to go to the mainland and become unreachable, however it eventually transpired that it was their son who killed them himself, holding them responsible for the failures in his life. Together with his friend who was believed to be mentally impaired from a botched suicide attempt, the two allegedly intentionally lured the couple into an apartment with intent to kill, after which they allegedly dismembered and cooked the body parts so that they’d ” It would look like char siu pork.

The debut of director Ho Cheuk-Tin (who has since helmed the 2023 comedy On my corpse), the plot avoids the expected linear approach of focusing on how the two accused came to commit such a heinous crime, and instead opts to frame the narrative through the lens of a courtroom drama. Whereas the case has already been adapted to the small screen twice, once for the 2017 Chinese miniseries Stainedand again for the 2018 TVB drama Anniversary OMG, Your Honor, the new perspective proves to be a smart choice. Making both the 4 judges and the 9 jury members crucial parts of the plot (that the title of the film The training partner also refers to), the events unfold in a running time of 140 minutes as we follow the proceedings together with the court members.

Alan Yeung (Coffin houses), marking his career best performance, and his friend is played by Mak Pui-Tung (From zero to hero). While Yeung willingly confesses to her crime, Pui-Tung’s involvement is darker, and as the plot progresses, the main engine behind the narrative comes to revolve around the extent of her role. Did he participate voluntarily or was he exploited and manipulated by Yeung? Did he actually take part in the murder itself or was he just involved in the cleanup afterward? Or is he innocent all together, and just another victim that Yeung wants to take his anger out on? While the questions create the expected intrigue, the narrative takes a while to get there, with Cheuk-Tin’s direction not always clear as to which characters should be the focus of the audience’s attention.

This could be intentional, creating the feeling of being held at arm’s length from the events unfolding on screen, however with the extended running time and ultimate lack of a conclusive ending, there are traits of The training partner that they don’t always engage in the way they intended. Cheuk-Tin doesn’t shy away from the gory details, showing both the murder (actually multiple interpretations of it) and the messy aftermath, yet these scenes make up only a small part of the whole. As the title indicates, the narrative progression is mainly achieved through the discussions that take place between the defendants, the judges and the jury, making The training partner One of the most dialogue filled movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s no exaggeration to say that there aren’t many scenes in Cheuk-Tin’s debut that don’t have multiple characters in conversation, meaning paying attention is an absolute prerequisite.

However, all the talk also occasionally confuses Cheuk-Tin’s intentions. There are times when the gruesome murders feel pushed aside altogether to bring up other themes, like the importance of a jury’s role in the justice system and the responsibility that comes with being a juror. While such themes are indeed worth exploring, if that was the intention, it probably would have been better to pick a case that was less shocking than a gratuitous double homicide, so that it could be pushed into the background without any harmful impact. As it is, the chilling portrait Yeung creates of the killer sometimes feels like it’s changed by spending so much time on other characters.

Thankfully the cast is stellar across the board. Longtime fans of Hong Kong cinema can look out for appearances by Gloria Yip (The Peacock King) and Jimmy Wong (Wonder seven) as members of the judging panel, while Louisa So (Paradise Hotel), Jan Lam (Divergence), Michael Chow (Miracles), and Choi Tze-Ching (in his debut) are never less than convincing as lawyers. It is to the credit of their performances and Cheuk-Tin’s direction that, for the most part, the narrative maintains a steady pace throughout the 140 minutes. Rather than limiting locations within the courtroom as testimony is given, the narrative places the jurors at the event being talked about, so we see them watch Yeung and Pui-Tung talk in a bar, as well as witness to the murder itself. . The use of shadows and light is also used effectively to convey mood, meaning that the classroom itself is never in danger of feeling too static.

There are some moments in the script that seem to come out of nowhere. At one point Michael Chow is reprimanded for speaking English and told “This is a Chinese language-only court hearing,” which seems like a strange tip of the hat to appease the NRTA, perhaps in exchange for letting them bloodier scenes remain. Similarly, while it is true that the son actually claimed that he was often bullied by “black people” while studying in Australia, in the film the fact that the point is made in a throwaway joke about bullies who were “ethnically African” also comes across as racially specific without any further context. It would have been better to simply refer to the bullying he experienced while studying abroad, instead of jotting down a line that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Despite some decisions that prevent The training partner from reaching its full potential, there is no doubt that it is a fine debut from Ho Cheuk-Tin, marking him as a director to watch and another welcome new entry in the Hong Kong film world. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a solid Cat III crime thriller, and while it may not completely satisfy the itch, it certainly comes close. Either way, we can now add microwaved char siu pork to the Cat III consumables list, sitting proudly next to human pork buns and hideous high heels. Tuck in.

Paul Bramhall Rating: 7/10