Adi Tantimedh writes for Bleeding Cool;
The newest open world crime game SLEEPING DOGS evokes my memories of Hong Kong something fierce on top of Hong Kong gangster movies.
Where GRAND THEFT AUTO 4 was a grotesque satire on New York City and the most vulgar parts of the American Dream and SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD pushed the satire into orbital levels of postmodern absurdity and slapstick silliness, SLEEPING DOGS aims to play it fairly straight with its more naturalistic portrayal of Hong Kong via the prism of a pulp gangster melodrama featuring an conflicted undercover cop who finds himself increasingly sympathetic to the triad gangsters whose ranks he's infiltrated. The makers of the game have admitted to doing meticulous research in Hong Kong, familarising themselves not only with the layout, architecture and atmosphere of the streets, but also interviewed both police and Triad members in order to present a respectful portrayal of both sides in the crime noir plot. The game has a strong sense of class and poverty that drive people to join gangs in its narrative, and the in-game city of Hong Kong captures the sense of walking in a known city more than most games can claim. The sense of Hong Kong in SLEEPING DOGS gets the city right more than any game set in a city that I've ever played, albeit through the perspective of a crime story where extremes of Good and Bad are the name of the game and anything in between is just background fodder.
While Proust's memory trigger was the smell of madeleine cakes, SLEEPING DOGS's visuals trigger my memory of the smells of Hong Kong. The graphics were good enough for me to remember the smoggy, muggy air, the smell of soy sauce and cooking grease from restaurants and fresh-steamed pork buns from street stalls and the thick patter of monsoon showers. I also got a warm, fuzzy feeling from hearing Cantonese drivers shouting obscenities to each other in ways that feel just like Central at rush hour all over again. Then there's the smattering of Cantopop, Cantorap and radio programs in the soundtrack that conjured up even more memories for me. They also seemed to employ nearly every Asian-American actor in Hollywood under 40 and a few from Hong Kong while they were at it to give it that air of authenticity. If I have any caveats, it's that the streets of the real Hong Kong are at least ten times more crowded than in the game (though a computer's CPU and graphics card would flop over if they tried to put that many digital people in a game) and there are so many cars in the real Hong Kong that the hero wouldn't get too many chances at high-speed car chases but would instead spend most of his days stuck in traffic jams. Of course, concessions to fantasy are needed for videogames and movies. Hong Kong action movies understood that even more than Hollywood, and the insane, outrageous physics of their action sequences are actually perfect for a video game.
Of course, large open world games like this one have millions of lines of AI code running alongside each other and occasionally crash into each other in the least expected, hilarious and unintended satirical ways. Where SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD was deliberately programmed to have sheer farcical insanity happen all the time in the background, SLEEPING DOGS was meant to be a more naturalistic affair, but no one told the AI that. In one escort mission, I managed to drive a crony to safety in a high-speed chase from a gun-toting rival gang. Homie signaled the end of the mission by asking to be let out of the car, and as he got out, a random speeding driver ploughed right in to him, sending his screaming body flying through the air to his death and the mission had to start again. The sheer accident of programming made me laugh for a whole five minutes. I wish I recorded the video of that instance to share with you, but the best I can do is offer a transcript of that NPC's last words:
"Thanks. Just let me out here. If you need my help – ARRRRRRRRRGHHHH!"
In another instance, I called for a valet to deliver me a motorcycle, only to see said valet ride up and run right over a pedestrian. The valet got off the bike and presented the bike to me in the most ingratiating manner you could imagine, completely ignoring the poor bugger he'd run over while a siren wailed in the background, signaling an ambulance coming for the victim. Alas, the area was so cramped that I ended up running over the pedestrian again in order to get going. That was such a prime example of money trumping human decency that it kind of took my breath away. Damn, I know life in Hong Kong can be hard in real life, but not THIS hard.
In the way that Rockstar Games' RED DEAD REDEMPTION encapsulated the history and evolution of the Western, SLEEPING DOGS recalls the entire wave of Hong Kong gangster movies from the 80s to now. You can trace the lineage back to 1986's A BETTER TOMORROW, the movie that put both John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat – and the Hong Kong gangster movie – on the world map. When Chow Yun-Fat played a gangster hero in a movie, he almost always died tragically at the end. He'd been in so many of those movies that I still wonder whether he or Klaus Kinski holds the record for having the most death scenes in a single actor's career.
The original template that Hong Kong undercover cop movies have used has always really been MIAMI VICE, with its designer clothes, nightclubs, girls, fast cars, fast boats and ultraviolent shootouts, all of which SLEEPING DOGS also adopts like a gleeful fish taking to water. While the makers of the game cited recent Hong Kong gangster movies like INFERNAL AFFAIRS and Johnny To's ELECTION 1 and 2 (retitled in the West as TRIAD ELECTION), I thought the pulp scenarios of gang wars with young tongs recalled more specifically the YOUNG AND DANGEROUS movies, a late 90s series adapted from a popular comic series that was itself a thinly-veiled portrayal of real gang rivalries. Just as the massive wave of Hong Kong genre movies were winding down, YOUNG AND DANGEROUS became a hit by shooting on location on low budgets featured a young, up-and-coming cast that looked like a boy band playing junior gangsters wearing the latest street fashions on their tragic rise to power. The look and feel of SLEEPING DOGS is actually closer to the YOUNG AND DANGEROUS movies than John Woo's, and I assume the Western journalists writing about the game didn't bring them up because they never heard of or saw these movies, which consisted of five sequels and three spinoffs, making them the biggest franchise in Asia in the late 90s, spawning dozens of ripoffs and imitators in the process. They were movies made for the Asian market without any concern for export to the West, so audiences in America and Britain have missed this last gasp of the down-and-dirty Hong Kong gangster movie before INFERNAL AFFAIRS breathed new life into the genre by reintroducing big budgets and a more sophisticated version of the undercover cop genre into the mix, spawning yet another wave of imitations the same way A BETTER TOMORROW kicked off the Heroic Bloodshed Gangster genre in the 1980s. Interesting variations on the gangster and undercover cop genres continued to be made in the first decade of the 21st Century. The prolific Herman Yau made some interesting and off-beat entries like A MOB STORY and ON THE EDGE (now streaming on Netflix in the US), the only movie as far as I know that covers what happens to a cop after his undercover assignment is over and he stands as an outsider distrusted by both cops and gangsters. Johnny To's two ELECTION movies ripped the veneer of honour and brotherhood off and exposing the craven lust for power underneath, ending with the horror of an even bigger power hanging over the gangs of Hong Kong: the Chinese government.
Both the gangster and the undercover cop genre serves offer the fantasy of being bad and the guilty desire to be punished for wanting to play at being bad. If the variants of the Hong Kong gangster movie and SLEEPING DOGS show anything, it's to remind us once again that Hong Kong is still the city where that fantasy has its strongest hold. It reminded me that all the crazy, over-the-top and baroque action we now take for granted in Hollywood movies was co-opted from Hong Kong Cinema. SLEEPING DOGS reclaims that for the home turf.
If anything, the game makes me want to revisit the YOUNG AND DANGEROUS movies.
Mo lei dou at email@example.com
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