HONG KONG 2010 Directed by: Felix Chong Written by: Felix Chong, Chapman To, Lau Ho Leung Produced by: Alan Mak, Ronald Wong Cinematography: Lin Yau Tsou Editing: Chi Wai Chan Music: Ken Chan Cast: Ekin Cheng, Jordan Chan, Alex Fong, Michelle Ye, On-On Yu, Wilfired Lau, Conroy Chan Chi-Chung, Sze-Kwan Cheng, Fung Kwok, Pong Nan, Kwok Cheung Tsang, Ben Yuen
It’s not exactly original to rip off Italian western movies anymore (unless you do it very, very intelligently), but the copy of the opening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, here set in a Hong Kong harbor reminiscent of 70’s/80’s kung fu and action flicks, was a fair beginning (then again, Leone’s original is one the greatest opening scenes of any film ever). I almost expected Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan to appear out of the blue, but then, while a Morricone-inspired melody is playing, the film cuts to daring close-ups of scarcely hidden genitals and butts of young triad members attending an initiation ceremony. So expectations changed as quickly as the scenes and settings with the film suddenly gearing towards a Hong Kong version of DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN.
But it’s not that bad after all. ONCE A GANGSTER is a relatively (by Hong Kong comedy standards) demure satire paying homage to – or exploiting – the notorious YOUNG & DANGEROUS series and similar triad movies. Consequently many of the old stars of Hong Kong’s gang movies have joined the cast, and apart from the always-brilliant Jordan Chan also Ekin Chen is far more bearable here than in his fantasy films. ONCE A GANGSTER tries its best to put the cast to good use and mostly refrains from the usual slapstick and tedious trickery of Cantonese comedy: many of the jokes are falling into the category of black humor, but even some of the more vulgar gags hit home occasionally.
Of course all this is not on the same sophisticated level of satire as Johnnie To’s films (even though ONCE A GANGSTER extensively quotes ELECTION), but it’s also not Stephen Chow terrain. The story about the selection of the next don is just a reason to trail off left and right into Hong Kong action (B-)film history. Expect a lot of obvious references as well as quite a few insider jokes, paired with various artistic styles like musical or silent picture. Instead of a coherent movie ONCE A GANGSTER is a playground for director Felix Chong and his fellow co-writers to explore the HK gangland, past and present. You may like what they found, or not, as their selection of “best of” scenes is entirely subjective.
I would have wished for a less tiring story and script, in fact a further reduction of the plot, and instead for a sharper and wittier interpretation of common gang movie clichés. I doubt that literal references to Andrew Lau’s movie series have any news value, or that the mobsters’ funny outfits and names are offering a new perspective on one of the more genuine Hong Kong movie genres. Quoting is not transcending, and I can’t help but feel that ONCE A GANGSTER hardly ever goes beyond the former.
ONCE A GANGSTER has a hard time to find its place. It’s not the most intelligent persiflage, nor the most stupid. But it is evident that a great cast is wasted on a mediocre script and a lukewarm attempt to bring back fond memories. ONCE A GANGSTER too obviously feeds off the cast, and that’s why in the end it’s more a reunion than an actual satire.
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