This real-life crime drama is inspired by a brutal double murder in Hong Kong in 2013, when a 28-year-old man murdered and dismembered his parents. He cooked parts of their bodies in the microwave; police found the heads in a freezer. The case sparked a media frenzy; what’s interesting about The Sparring Partner is that the horrors of the case have been turned into a serious, cerebral, densely layered film. This is part stylish courtroom drama, relishing the intellectual sparring of the barristers. Behind the scenes we watch tense negotiations in the jury room. It’s also a whodunnit – presenting conflicting versions of the murders in flashback.
In fact, we know who the main culprit is almost from the start. After making a public appeal for help in finding his missing mum and dad, Henry (Yeung Wai-lun) soon confesses to their murder. He’s chillingly played here as a smirking, loathsome inadequate who longs for his moment of fame. (Though I could have lived without the silly, shallow scenes depicting his Hitler fantasies – dressed up in the uniform with a moustache.)
The bigger question for the jury – and us watching – is whether Henry’s snivelling friend Angus (Mak Pui-tung) was a willing accomplice to the murders. He claims to have helped dispose of the bodies only after Henry threatened to kill his mother and sister. Angus has a below-average IQ of 84. Will that get him off the hook? Should it? Rashōmon style, we watch the defendants’ contradictory accounts of what happened on the night, in scenes brilliantly stylised by director Cheuk Tin Ho. The most memorable comes at the end: the jury is transported into the murder scene. One juror cowers behind a cupboard; another reaches for her phone to film the grisly act. It’s a clever scene in a clever film that’s at least 30 minutes too long, and gets bogged down by its big themes of guilt and justice.
• The Sparring Partner is released on 18 November in cinemas.