Ho Cheuk-tin’s debut is a tight, well-written and stylishly-directed legal thriller with two wonderfully unlikeable leads.
“To many Hong Kongers, losing a flat is worse than death.”
In March 2013, the parents of Henry Cheung (Yeung Wai-lun) are reported missing, having reportedly left Hong Kong for the mainland some time prior. A few days later, Henry writes on a WhatsApp group that his parents are in fact dead, and it was he who killed them – supposedly due to them cutting him out of an apartment whose ownership he was sharing with his brother. He is arrested along with his flatmate and potential co-conspirator Angus Tong (Mak Pui-tung). In interrogation, Henry details the meticulous plan he and Angus cooked up, but once the case goes to trial, the truth starts to get fuzzy.
Ho Cheuk-tin’s The Sparring Partner is a film comprised of a lot of moving parts: the present-day courtroom drama, in which three lawyers engage in a gripping battle royale; the many flashback sequences, shown in a style not dissimilar to Rashomon’s, where points of view change the events; scenes in prison where Henry and Angus are talking to family or interviewers; and lastly are the scenes of the jurors deliberating, voting and generally being very 12 Angry Men about the whole thing.
A movie such as this, with so many ongoing plot elements, runs the risk of crashing once all the plates stop spinning, but Ho is able to keep the pace tight without zooming through anything, and most importantly is able to make everything we witness easily comprehensible and intriguing. Flashbacks, for example, are stylishly interrupted by characters in the present day doing the questioning entering the scene and investigating it for themselves. Moves like that help keep the the story fresh, and the delivery consistently interesting. Considering the entire thing hinges on the trial of a man we know is guilty, this is all the more impressive.
Where The Sparring Partner differs is that at no point is Henry’s guilt ever in question. The truth of his involvement is laid out immediately in the opening text, after all. The meat of the story comes into play about an hour in, when the question of what to do with Angus Tong takes centre stage. Here, Ho nicely takes the audience for a ride, having given us just enough information to ponder Angus’ guilt. Too little, and we’d be quick to conclusions, like many of the jurors; too much and there’s no mystery. Through Mak Pui-tung’s flawless performance and our slightly elevated knowledge compared to everyone else, Ho puts us in a unique position where we can judge the jury’s conclusions, but never with quite the confidence we’d have if we were privy to all the information.
The cast is truly excellent throughout, with no bad performances in a movie absolutely loaded with opinionated and varied characters (the jurors come off a bit one-note and annoying, but there are nine of them sharing the screen at any given time, so it’s understandable). As well as Mak the standout here is absolutely Yeung whose unfeeling smiles and general shittiness makes for a pretty entertaining and easy-to-hate character.
There are a few moments where things get a little silly. The Sparring Partner doesn’t have the most nuance when it comes to mental illness, and never quite succeeds in balancing the defendants’ psychological health with their heinous acts. Henry, apparently comparing himself to Hitler, is often seen dressed as him in scenes that at first are striking and memorable, but get very dumb after a certain time. I know what they’re going for, but watching Henry speak German with the goofy moustache quickly becomes the textbook definition of diminishing returns.
I’m not a huge courtroom drama fan, but The Sparring Partner was not only able to keep my attention, but have me forming my own theories and ideas as the story was progressing. Ignoring some strange editing, and a final couple scenes that seemed added to out of nowhere, The Sparring Partner turned out to be a damn good legal thriller, and if nothing else taught me that microwaving a body makes it harder to identify.
Verdict: Thrillingly captivating and loaded with star performances, Sparring Partners is a tense, exciting courtroom drama that’ll leave you guessing long after the credits stop rolling
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Sex: One failed porn career/10
Coffee rice: Keeps you full and alert!
Ending: Messy, admittedly
Reporter: Oh yeah, I forgot about her
The Sparring Partner (2022)
Also known as: 正義迴廊
Director: Ho Cheuk-tin
Writers: Frankie Tam, Yip Wai-ping, Thomas Leung Wing-ho
Yeung Wai-lun – Henry Cheung
Mak Pui-tung – Angus Tong