French art house director Olivier Assayas returns to the world of corporate espionage with this silkily photographed thriller whose pivotal opening event is either the result of a character's sudden rage in a desperate situation, or it was preplanned as a means to knock off the competition (which the catchy poster art seems to infer, since that Big Gun with a silencer is meant for only one purpose).
Superficially, Boarding Gate deals with an internet tycoon named Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen) who wants to rekindle an S&M relationship with Sandra (Asia Argento), a dock manager who's also been smuggling dope while maintaining an affair with her married boss Lester (Carl Ng), while Lester's frustrated and jealous wife Sue (Kelly Lin) has been waiting for the right set of events so she can destroy their annoying liaison.
Like Demon Lover (2002), the drama comes from incestuous relationships that have colleagues becoming lovers, rivals, and potential killers, with a great deal of money at stake (Sandra's drug smuggling, debt-ridden Miles, a club in Beijing everyone seems to want), alongside professional reputations and a radical career changes (new identities, if not continental relocations).
Of course, this all sounds like a recipe for an indulgent, narrative muddle (which it kind of is), but Assayas keeps the focus on four characters, with Sandra being the human ping-pong ball forced to do some dirty deeds and run for her life after fleeing to Hong Kong.
In its first section, Boarding Gate is basically a filmed play that happens to occur in Paris ' grand industrial dockyards. The scope cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (Swimming Pool) is very beautiful, and offers harsh colour contrasts between Hong Kong's dynamic architecture and the stained street-level ateliers packed into older city quarters which become the backdrop to the film's thriller conclusion.
Viewers and Asia Argento fans expecting a hot and sexy thriller will be disappointed by the film's slow pacing and emphasis on the disintegrating relationships between Sandra and the two men in her self-destructive life: boss Lester, who's more protector than lover; and ex-lover Miles, who's either a misogynistic asshole, or plays the role to release the latent alpha-babe within Sandra's whorish psyche. Yes, there's nudity and naughty behaviour, but they're peripheral elements, and the snapshot used for the poster and DVD art is a cheat for the kind of erotic thriller Boarding Gate clearly ain't.
In the film's pre-murder section, it's about Sandra struggling to follow orders when she's had enough of the male bullshit; in the post-murder half, it becomes a slightly formulaic chase, but Assayas keeps his characters so low-keyed and emotionally repressed that we're never wholly sure exactly what's going on, let alone of any precise relationships between the core four characters.
That pushes Boarding Gate into arty-farty territory, and while the finale doesn't end on a clear-cut resolution, it does offer Sandra a future that's less bizarre than the finale devised for Demon Lover, Assayas' provocative attempt to devolve a corporate espionage thriller into an Emma Peel/ Avengers riff with flashes of hardcore porn.
The film's strangest and arguably most hypnotic quality is its tone, which mimics that fuzzy state one experiences after an epic trans-Atlantic flight; deprived of one's primal needs – food, shelter, rest – and subjected to immediate culture shock (mainly Parisian to Hong Kong), one has trouble recognizing familiar patterns, and reaction times are often a few beats too slow, so it's logical to see Sandra a bit of a haggard mess, since she's been running on a dwindling adrenaline supply since her opening scene.
Some elliptical dialogue and Assayas' rather frustrating efforts to keep us in the dark for long stretches before a minor revelation are offset by some decent performances by the leading quartet, with Madsen probably giving his best performance in years, making the most of a complex egotist the film's plot simply doesn't have time to explore.
Magnolia's DVD offers a clean transfer of the film, and a decent sound mix; some of the soft-spoken dialogue between Argento and Kelly Lin (Fulltime Killer) is way too low, but there's some clever sound effects that evoke the film's exotic industrial locations, and the lack of a formal score actually enhances the film's weird mood: droning electronica is substituted in place of formal score, and any vocal source music (like the karaoke cuts) are as loud and oppressive as one would expect them to be after being trapped in the white noise ambience of a 777 jetliner.
The DVD's extras are slim, but agreeable: a short Q&A with director Assayas covers filming in Hong Kong, working with Argento, and his directorial approach that leaves actors all alone to figure out their characters without any guidance; and two edited Q&As with Argento from an EPK. The former was taken from French publicity materials, but includes optional English subtitles when Assayas and Argento (in fluent French) provide their replies between some intermittent on-set footage.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan