With the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in 2020 igniting swaths of people to fight against police violence and systemic racism, now is as good a time as any to release a film like A Shot Through The Wall. A somewhat fictionalized take on the accidental shooting of Akai Gurley by NYPD officer Peter Liang in 2014, the film attempts to show how mistakes can happen in the line of duty that ends up costing innocent people their lives.
While it maybe skews the real-life events in favor of the officer a bit, the film doesn’t make things comfortable for the viewer as the fallout of such an incident is explored from all angles. You’ll witness the victim’s survivors grieving, see how the police force readily throws a minority officer under the bus, and get insight into how society is quick to demonize someone without having the full picture.
This is certainly a difficult film to sit through, which also makes it a difficult one to rate.
A Shot Through The Wall
Director: Aimee Long
Release Date: August 8, 2021 (NY Asian Film Festival), January 22, 2022 (Limited)
Starting in media res three months after the incident, A Shot Through The Wall begins with protagonist Mike Tan (Kenny Leu) attempting to cook for his mother, May (Fiona Fu), as an act of recompense. Still unable to deal with the aftermath of his actions, he starts to recount exactly what happened on the fateful day that would change his life forever.
The film then cuts to Mike on his daily beat alongside officer Ryan Doheney (Derek Goh). Eating some pizza and chatting about how Mike’s parents like his half-black fiancé, Candace (Ciara Renee), for her white side, Ryan spots some black kids walking down the street and gets suspicious. After a short confrontation asking to see their bags, one kid takes off and a chase ensues.
Mike and Ryan follow the kid to a dilapidated apartment complex and continue to pursue through the building. After potentially losing the kid down a hallway, Mike draws his gun in preparation for rounding a blind corner. Before he can even make a move, his gun discharges and startles him and Ryan. After scouting ahead and believing the kid to be gone, they hear the dying cries of a man in one of the rooms and the realization hits Mike: his errant bullet has struck someone.
While people will be quick to compare this film’s premise with that of George Floyd’s murder, A Shot Through The Wall is based on the real-life killing of Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, NYC, on November 20, 2014. Officers Peter Liang and Shaun Landau had entered the notoriously awful Louis H. Pink Houses complex to perform vertical patrols when Liang’s firearm was accidentally discharged. His bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck Gurley, fatally wounding him and eventually causing his death.
It’s clear that the events of Gurley’s death were changed not only to create more drama but to pay respect to his widow and child and also to the privacy of officer Liang. As the film later demonstrates, putting someone’s name out into the wild will result in extra harassment whether or not it’s been deserved. Since that’s not the intent of this film, I do feel this is a smart change.
After the shooting, Mike’s department quickly assures him that nothing will happen. It was a routine exercise and an accident, so things will blow over in a few days. Just like in real life, however, that isn’t the case and Mike is soon indicted on murder charges and looking at a potential sentence of 15-years. This is going on all while Mike is dealing with relationship trouble with his fiancé, parents, sister, and even the victim’s wife. It’s a lot to take in.
For material so uncomfortable, A Shot Through The Wall wouldn’t work without solid acting from its cast. While comprised mostly of lesser-known actors, the film gets a boost of talent in the form of Tzi Ma portraying Mike’s father, Chow. Providing a rather understated performance that is different from his previous roles, Ma’s fatherly wisdom and open attitude anchor Mike’s struggle in reality as he makes mistakes when listening to various legal advisors.
Initially looking to tell the truth, Mike gets steered by his union rep to feign ignorance and take a plea deal with guaranteed jail time. He ignores that request and kicks off the main gist of the film where we get an examination of how public mistrust in the police force can sink an otherwise decent ship. Mike is probably the only good officer in the world here, but he can’t seem to stop putting his foot in his mouth.
One such incident comes later in the film regarding his fiancé’s ethnicity. Reluctant to put her on camera like a trophy, he eventually sends a photo of the two together to a media outlet that then runs an article questioning how he can be racist with a black wife. This severs the trust Mike had with Candace, resulting in palpable drama.
Again, the acting holds this all up as it never feels forced or amateurish. A lot of that is down to the direction of newcomer Aimee Long. Having only directed short films before this, you can tell she understands the circumstances of being Asian American as there are a ton of moments showcasing the life of an immigrant family. Mike sits for dinner around a big table and shares potluck meals with his family. His mom dotes on him all the time, rarely showing the American form of love. His father tries to diffuse situations as best as he can. It’s all very authentic in its portrayal.
What ultimately lets the film down is that the pacing is simply slow. A Shot Through The Wall isn’t overly long or anything, but you feel the intensity of each moment as scenes aren’t quickly run through to progress the plot. For a short while, the plot takes something of a backseat as Long focuses on the character drama erupting from such an unfortunate turn of events.
Where things end up is what stops me from calling the film great. I won’t spoil the plot, but with so much focus on racism and systemic injustice, you likely can guess what happens to Mike in the end. In a deviation from real-life events, the conclusion makes me question the intent of the message here. It certainly isn’t a plea to understand cops, but I also don’t know how I’m supposed to take everything in.
That possibly sounds overly negative, but it does give A Shot Through The Wall a lasting impression. Whether or not I liked the film, I definitely won’t forget about it and I’d urge others to seek it out. Maybe you’ll walk away disgusted or possibly with sympathy for certain officers trying their best, but you’ll probably find that the film lingers with you for days after.
As I said in the beginning, it’s hard to rate a movie like this. With so much of the subject matter hitting a nerve, many people may not even make it to the credits. If you can stick things out, though, you’ll be treated to a film that is unflinching in its resolve and one that wants to help our world become a better place. With some edits, it could become great, but maybe that messiness is part of the intent.