Written by Anna Harrison
Time opens in spectacular fashion: two young assassins, assisted by their getaway driver, wreak havoc on some unknown targets, utilizing everything from knives to whips to banana peels to foil their enemies. Freeze frames pause the punches and kicks, adding comic book style flair to the action, and it’s all filmed with a grainy quality that makes the scene feel like a blast from the past. Which it turns out to be, as we cut to our modern-day assassins, now old: Chau (Patrick Tse) hand cuts noodles for a restaurant, but gets replaced by a machine; Chung (Suet Lam) has heart problems that arise whenever he goes to town with his favorite sex worker; Fung (Petrina Fung) sings in her dilapidated night club, her deadbeat son handling the cash register. Their usefulness to society outlived, they have largely been outcast, so when the opportunity for a hit arrives, they jump on it.
Only their new assassination mission turns out to be a bedridden eldery woman whose husband hired Chau, Chung, and Fung so he could end her suffering, as he’s too poor to afford the medicine she needs. While they refuse the job, they later see that the husband has been arrested for mercy killing his wife; this sparks an idea, and so the trio begin hiring their services out for what amounts to assisted suicide for the elderly, only with a cut to the throat instead of a needle in the arm, stepping in where both government and society have failed.
What follows is a touching meditation on the loneliness often felt by the elderly and the many failings of not only the individuals around them but the government to provide support, both physically and emotionally. Chau, Chung, and Fung get discarded by their employers, their family, and the healthcare system, and their new jobs only serve to highlight how isolated their lives have become. However, when a desperate teenage girl (Suet Ying-Chung), abandoned by her parents and boyfriend, hires the team to kill her, the trio begin to find a renewed sense of purpose and life.
It sounds a bit twee—old people feel alive again through the help of someone in the prime of their life—and Time certainly isn’t afraid to wear its sentimentality on its sleeve, but first-time director Ricky Ko, along with writers Ching-Yi Ho and Ka Tung Lam, make the conceit feel fresh through the characters’ unique vocation and through coaxing out strong performances, especially for the three veteran leads. Their assassin profession doesn’t make them stoic, emotionless husks, but seems only to add to their isolation: Chau and Chung have no family, and the family that Fung has treats her poorly and eventually ships her off to a nursing home, but they still have each other.
The film is anchored by strong empathy for the elderly, but it never becomes patronizing or condescending, evoking a feeling of loneliness and abandonment without resorting to melodrama. It’s a pointed (if not searing) critique of the treatment of older people in our society (because this is certainly not just limited to Hong Kong), a tender character examination, and pretty funny in its own right. The ending begins to venture too close to oversentimentality, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t shed a tear or two anyway.
Time was screened as part of the 2021 edition the Fantasia Film Festival which runs until August 25, and as part of the New York Asian Film Festival which runs until August 22.
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