In the pantheon of great Hong Kong action films, So Close isn’t so much the most “hidden” or “buried” one, giving that it had a decent international distribution and even is available on Prime Video for U.S users, but even still, it’s not as widely known as it deserves to be.
The film was directed by action master Corey Yuen, as one of the last films in his lengthy directorial career in Hong Kong before he went on to the West to co-direct The Transporter and helm DOA: Dead or Alive, and then step down from directing. Yuen has a very versatile filmography going from period pieces to cop thrillers, and his 1985 film Yes, Madam! starring Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock is widely regarded as the founding movie of the “girls with guns” subgenre, which was particularly popular in the 80’s and 90’s, and So Close comes as a more post-modern entry to the genre in 2002 – a time when, with the rise of CGI, a lot of oldschool directors were subject to lose themselves a bit in the midst of modern filmmaking techniques, but that definitely wasn’t the case with Yuen.
The story here follows a couple of assassin/vigilante sisters who use a digital monitoring program invented by their late father called “World Panorama” to execute assassination jobs, mostly on corporate overlords. The sisters Lynn and Sue, played respectively by Shu Qi and Zhao Wei, end up crossing paths with the relentless cop Yat, played by Karen Mok, and a cat-and-mouse game issues as the three women get caught up in the cross-hairs of the dirty corporate officials who first hired the sisters and are now trying to eliminate them to tie-up loose ends. The charm, aesthetic and sheen style with which Yuen approaches such a plot is what makes So Close a delightfully exciting experience.
Even if it’s shot – beautifully – in 35mm, the film’s extensive use of visual effects bring it on to the realm of digital filmmaking, and granted, some of the effects look dated, but even the ones that do are implemented very cleverly with the practical work and the movie’s overall aesthetics, resulting in a product of its time that has aged remarkably well. Yuen makes sure that he maximizes the cinematography and set choreography, and most of the visual effects are rightfully treated as complements to the visual composition rather than being used as subjects in focus – a very common mistake in early 2000’s VFX films. The director always frames his performers as the main subject matter, and uses any present CGI only to embellish the surroundings of his mise-en-scène. This is a guy that knows how to use visual effects.
So Close is a very contemplative action film. Yuen balances out beautifully shot, borderline melodious slow-motion action sequences with more frenetic bursts of Kung Fu, visually enhanced by the clever use of visual effects every once in a while, a rich Open Matte aspect ratio, and made whole with a mesmerizing techno-operatic original score. This is a film that has you sit down and fully experience it, absorbing its aesthetics and music which are peak 2000’s cinema, in a great showcase of pure stylish action filmmaking. Any fans of Paul W.S. Anderson’s work need to check it out, after all giving that years later Anderson produced Corey Yuen’s DOA: Dead or Alive, I’m dead sure that a lot of his style, particularly in Resident Evil: Retribution, is influenced by So Close. On top of the cinematography and VFX use, the art department also does a remarkable job, especially with the costume & production designs, which work dressing our actresses in white suits and surrounding them by largely grey/silver sets. It’s like this film sits on the opposite side of the spectrum of The Matrix and its black coats and sunglasses.
Let’s go back to the music for a bit, since it’s such a big part of the movie. Its title is a reference to the Carpenters song “(They Long to be) Close to You”, which is not only used as the film’s theme but also has a diegetic role in the plot. This piece of music playing during a whole action sequence in the beginning of the movie sets a very specific tone for the story; there’s an inherent sense of humor in its use of course, but the song being the main clue detective Yat has to the sisters links them in this unusual way and gives a somewhat romantic vibe to their cat-and-mouse game. That is evidently intentional giving that So Close shockingly reveals itself a LGBTQ film; that could be read as a mild spoiler maybe, but I feel like it’s an important aspect to bring to light because there is a hunger for queer representation in entertainment as opposed to just arthouse cinema – although I will fight anyone who says So Close isn’t arthouse -, and we’ve had this one right here since 2002, but hardly anyone who wants more films like this knows about it.
While many people are left with nothing but potential queer-coding to read into many stories that have cat-and-mouse dynamics – like, say, Light Yagami and L in the Death Note anime, or Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle -, So Close comes straight up and delivers not one, but two main LGBTQ characters, though I won’t say which ones. Well… Okay, one is detective Yat, fine, that much you must’ve figured out by now. The point is, the movie tackles gay themes with incredible naturality and a surprising lack of any of the sexualization that most queer movies appeal to. From a representation perspective the homoaffective bond shown here is approached with the same naturality that a straight one would, and the script allows for the gay element to be organically fleshed out as it’s demanded by the context. It’s not pandering, instead it just feels extremely genuine. On top of that, the script traces a brilliant parallel between the lesbian relationship and the relationship between a cop and an outlaw, framing it as a romance that is, to the eyes of conservative society, forbidden – yet it is exactly that what saves the day.
Besides the queer aspect of it, the sisterly bond between Lynn and Sue is another big highlight for the film’s emotional journey. The two of them are very well developed and realized characters, with the chemistry between Shu Qi and Zhao Wei (both star power names in Hong Kong/Chinese cinema) making their friendship deeply engaging. Zhao – who delivered a powerhouse performance in 2009’s Hua Mulan – is the heart of the film, as Sue is presented as the most relatable character and goes through a coming of age arc that works off the journey of Shu’s Lynn. While Sue’s arc is about moving out of the shadow of her older sister, Lynn’s is about her coming to terms with her younger sister’s maturity, and accepting that she needs to let Sue go to make her own decisions. The script goes to some bold turnarounds to explore their journey in a sometimes heartbreaking, but ultimately emotionally cathartic way.
Detective Yat, on her end, is a great nemesis type character. Right off the bat there’s some clever contextualization of her as a gender norm-defying policewoman along with the prejudices and extra challenges that come with that. She’s constantly underestimated by virtually everyone but the assassin sisters, and their rivalry is one of the most entertaining aspects of the film. Karen Mok delivers a fun performance as the tough, wisecracking cop and makes sure we know this character doesn’t let others’ condescending perceptions bring her down. She’s a badass and she owns it.
All of that stylistic work and character development come together to elevate the action scenes to a much more investing level, not to mention the stakes. So Close makes a point of establishing real high stakes for the story so that in every action scene you know there is a risk, and you feel the impact in every gunshot, every sword slice. Shu Qi and Karen Mok face each other in an awesome fight sequence halfway through the film, but the more the plot advances, the better the action gets. And there’s all sorts of it: Kung Fu fights, shootouts, car chases, sword fights, you name it. All while looking stylish and choreographed in beautiful synchrony with the film’s conceptual sci-fi tropes. It culminates in a frenetic climax that features one of the greatest and most kinetic sword fights I’ve ever seen in a film – and I’ve seen my share of samurai and wuxia movies. It’s actually jaw-dropping because as great as the movie’s action had been before, Yuen just goes balls-to-the-wall off with that final fight and it sky-rockets to a whole new level of frenzy.
As So Close comes to an end, every time the feeling is that I’ve experienced a unique gem of a movie. Its few dated effects are forgiven by the overall impressively sheen looks of the film in its sensational cinematography, cleverly used VFX and iconic production design, but most of all by its deeply resonating and emotional character writing, along with the beautiful LGBTQ arc and themes, all executed through the phenomenal performances of Shu Qi, Zhao Wei and Karen Mok. You pair that with the flawless and spectacular action set pieces of one of Hong Kong’s biggest martial arts cinema masters and a glorious use of music, you get what can only be described as peak 2000’s digital cinema. Make sure you give this one a watch; it’s just waiting to be discovered!
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