VIFF ’21 Review: ‘Time’ uses narrative layers and black humour in a touching tale of old age

Time is a film that takes its time to show you its true character, and as such, you’ll work your way through many assumptions as you watch Ricky Ko’s debut feature. Is it a pastiche of 60s Hong Kong action flicks? A bucket list final hit taken by three ageing assassins? A Leon-style juxtaposition of caring for a young tearaway while killing? A heartfelt, even defeatist, look at the withering pain of old age? Truth is, it’s somehow all of those things, and how it brings all its story threads together is where the true joy of this film lies.

It opens in a truly remarkable recreation of a 60s martial arts classic, period clothes and hairstyles matched with the fitting fuzz of a VHS played too many times. Director Ko clearly knows his genre classics, as the opening fight hit all the right marks without ever becoming a pastiche. Assassin team Chau and Fung (with Chung as their driver) are all knives, kicks and catchphrases as they storm a criminal hideout and dispatch their sneering enemies in hilariously gruesome ways. Their energy is electric, each attack bursting off the screen. They seem unstoppable, forces of nature slicing through anything in front of them.

This makes it even more jarring as we jump forward to modern-day Hong Kong and see how even these three couldn’t fight the withering effect of time. Chau (screen icon Patrick Tse Yin) now uses his incredible skills with a curved knife to cut strips of noodles in a cafe, losing his job to an automated slicer whose speed even he can’t match. Fung (Petrina Fung Bo-bo) now sings in a cheap cabaret, dealing with her miserable son and his wife after work. Chung (Lam Suet) still drives them on their occasional light hits, but is otherwise totally concerned with his growing love for his favourite prostitute. The sudden fall from the grace of their prime is instantly shocking, made all the more stark by a Hong Kong that has long since moved on from the city they recognized.

Chung Suet-ying in Time

The film takes a while to find the story it wants to tell. Initially, it seems like general boredom with their lives leads them into becoming “Guardian Angels of the Elders”, with street posters (complete with tear-off phone number strips) advertising their solution to someone wanting to end their own life. The montage that follows is typical of the jet-dark humour of the whole film, with the three bouncing around clients, Chau’s blades seeing many necks. This plotline, in itself, could have been enough for a whole film, commenting eloquently about the desperation of the elderly and infirm when their society leaves them for dead. However, the page turns, and we’re instead led to 16-year-old Tsz-ying (played with unhinged energy by Chung Suet-ying) who forces a bond with Chau out of pure curiosity.

It’s the growth of this relationship that forms one of three parallel narrative threads, as Fung and Chung also deal with their own troubles. While the stories are very different, they’re all rooted in the deeply upsetting feeling of their time coming to a fizzling end as old age strips away the last shreds of their pleasures. Worse, it feel like Hong Kong just doesn’t care about its geriatrics, casting them out to somehow get by in its new technological age. This solemn realisation cuts through the black humour sharply, and it’s impossible not to be moved by how defeated these three have become. The fact that is it so touching is a testament to the leads, who are able to slide from confident to vulnerable in an instant.

Thankfully, without spoiling too much, there is a resolution that finds the intersection of all their stories and delivers a truly satisfying – and frequently hilarious – end to their tale. We’re left with more than a glimmer of light in the final shots, giving us a little slice of hope for our own time-worn futures. Time, as a film, somehow takes its narrative threads and leaves us with the idea that old age might actually be OK, as long as we can spend it with the family we choose.

Time played as part of the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival.