You wouldn’t know it from the title or VIFF’s program notes, but Wilson Yip’s Paradox began life as the third entry in the SPL series before the film’s producers and programmers jettisoned any mention of its genealogy ahead of the official rollout. And to be clear, this doesn’t appear to be a quirk of North American unfamiliarity with the series: even in Hong Kong it played as a clandestine sequel, with nary a mention of Sha Po Lang in sight (in English, anyways). And to confuse things further, Soi Cheang, director of the superb second entry, was originally slated to direct Paradox, only to swap out for workman Wilson Yip, director of the not-entirely-superb original SPL, late in the game. Cheang retains a producing credit on Paradox and rumor has it that he will be back to direct the next SPL film, which may end up monikered ‘SPL 3’ if the pre-production reports are to be believed. In the world of Soi Cheang, things tend towards mutation.
Production background of this sort isn’t typically worth the uni-code spent to construct an IMDB trivia page, but in the case of Paradox it helps to explain why, after Cheang leapfrogged over everyone’s expectations in SPL 2, this newest film might have looked better without the series branding. The original film—also directed by Yip—was a decidedly safe throwback. It inaugurated Sammo Hung’s twilight period by looking back to Golden Harvest and giving him one last fistfight worthy of those halcyon years. And though it was no valediction for co-star Donnie Yen, by 2006 he was already a middle aged star with roots in an earlier era of the Hong Kong film history. It’s simply a fluke of cinema that Yen would finally achieve megastardom almost a decade later, in his 50s.
SPL 2 represented a injection of new blood for the series, to borrow an earlier Cheang title. As a filmmaker, Cheang clearly respects the old guard, but his stroke of genius was to seize SPL 2 for the next generation and in the process defibrillate an increasingly moribund action film industry. Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, and Zhang Jin had each punched above their weight in a variety of films before Cheang recruited them from across East Asia for his action opus. A number of established Hong Kong players (Louis Koo, Simon Yam, etc.) hovered around the edges of the film, away from the action, to give it a little bit of that old Cantonese flavor. But the thrust of SPL 2 came from that group of younger martial artists who were offered the chance, for the first time, to perform in lockstep with the idiosyncratic vision of a genuine artist.
Wilson Yip, realizing that he can’t call Cheang’s ante, plays it safe again with Paradox. It’s no accident that Tony Jaa meets his maker early on; he’s a ghost, an afterimage still lingering from someone else’s vision. The same is true of the film’s setting, which ostensibly places Louis Koo’s bereaved cop in the context of deeply interconnected pan-Asian politics (something Cheang is interested in) but which is mostly an excuse for otherization scare tactics at the expense of Thailand. I don’t know Wilson Yip, but based on the evidence here he doesn’t seem much interested in the world beyond Hong Kong.
All of which would be negligible if the film slinked along with the same exhilarating prowess that defined SPL 2. Yip, however, makes the odd choice of putting Koo, who is not a martial artist by training, front and center. Koo, for his part, gives himself entirely to the role and unveils depths of self-hatred and despair that he only seemed capable of reaching under Johnnie To’s direction. Paradox is less successful in harnessing Koo’s talents when it thrusts him into action. Koo clearly trained up a bit: he moves with surprising speed, and though he isn’t steeped in kung fu, he’s always been a game physical performer, particularly in comedies. But what’s a martial arts movie without a martial artist? Yip grants himself a limited set of choreographic options and, not being a particularly imaginative designer of action sequences to begin with, ends up conceiving most of the fights as brutal games of maypole, where Koo stands rigidly at the center of the action and dispatches henchman who dance around him. It requires not insignificant faith in the superhuman strength of Koo’s cop and never achieves the locomotive energy of the series at its best.
Sapped of energy by a thinned talent pool and weaker action, Paradox relies on Koo’s mounting desperation to keep it churning along, which may be just enough, though it feels like an even deeper rejection of SPL 2 and its strange globalist optimism. It’s no joke to say that SPL 2, despite its convulsive violence, stands among the most hopeful films of this decade. Cheang is as brutal as Yip (probably more so) but his project to flay the borders between bodies and countries—like so much soft flesh—is borne from his desire to see a new, better world grafted on top of the old one. In more ways than one, Yip finds himself wading in the bloody mess that’s been left behind.