After years of living in poverty and struggling to survive, best friends Bill (Francis Ng Chun-Yu) and Shing (Simon Lui Yue-Yeung) manage to sneak into Hong Kong. But when a jewelry heist goes south the two men spend twelve years in prison. Once out, they attempt to make their fortune at selling drugs only to be double crossed by their supplier Fai (Allan Wu). In a terrifyingly bloody act of vengeance, Bill and Shing execute Fai and his entire family. Now, with officers Tung (Yu Rong-Guang) and Cheung (Cheung Shui-Chit) on their trail, Bill and Shing spend their final days hiding out on a boat.
Never Compromise (1999) sees writer and director Bosco Lam turning away from Category III pictures like A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (1994) and Spike Drink Gang (1995) to attempt a more traditional crime film. Lam retains the nihilistic attitudes of his infamous Cat. III films, channeling them into a portrait of poverty and moral corruption. The theme of desperation and the notion that the police must become criminals themselves in order to catch their suspects aren’t anything new on their own, it’s all about how Lam tells this story.
The film follows a non-linear structure, opening with the murder of Fai and his family and then proceeding as a series of flash backs as Bill and Shing hideout on their boat. Never Compromise takes the political position that poverty leads to crime and Lam shows this in his gritty visual style. The physical spaces Bill and Shing occupy are all rundown and, due to Lam’s kinetic camera style, are imbued with the illusion of documentary realism. The world that Bill and Shing live in isn’t romanticized the way it is in a film by John Woo or Ringo Lam, it’s more akin to the viscerally impoverished cityscapes of Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy.
While the emotional core of the drama in Never Compromise rests in the friendship of Bill and Shing, Lam’s camera sympathizes with the victims of violence. In the opening scene the sound of gunshots are replaced with electronic music beats and a cut to an opening credit title card. The act of killing is removed from the image complex, leaving only the act of dying as the camera comes in for a close-up of the victim’s face. Before Lam discloses any details about Bill and Shing he shows the audience their capacity for violence. All that follows in Never Compromise is meant as an explanation as to why these two men have become such hardened and violent criminals.
In the tradition of the Heroic Bloodshed film only one of the two main characters has an arc in which he changes. Bill remains ostensibly the same person throughout most of the film whilst Shing undergoes a moral transformation after falling in love with a prostitute. Of course, this emotional connection that Shing forms ties him back to society, enabling the police to catch him and turn him against Bill. In Never Compromise it is the act of giving and receiving love that binds an individual to society. If, like Bill, one shuns society then one exists beyond its moral and legal codes.
Unlike Lam’s best known feature A Chinese Torture Chamber Story, Never Compromise is low-budget, down and dirty filmmaking. As a result the visual flair and inventive camera placements in Lam’s films for Wong Jing are replaced by a more utilitarian sensibility. Bosco Lam, nevertheless, exhibits his prowess as a picture maker in Never Compromise, just in a far more subtle fashion. Watching Never Compromise it is almost immediately evident that, for Lam, this is a deeply personal project.