Gangster Payday (大茶飯): when he’s being muscled out of his karaoke bar by aggressive real estate developers, an ageing gangster invests in an honest business, but can’t seem to shake off his past. Despite the title and trailer hinting at an overly-familiar HK mob film; the gangster element plays second fiddle to an ‘emo triads’ angle where we find out that even the hardiest of HK gangbangers are just big teddybears with emotions, and gooey centres. Unfortunately, this is portrayed through a soap-operatic love triangle, which – when paired with the mid-budget televisual aesthetics and very melodic/dramatic vocal performances – means that the film lacks a ‘cinematic’ vibe. Tonally and thematically, it’s also one of those films that doesn’t export well, and westerners will probably fail to engage with (I particularly struggled with the hammy music and theatrical / play-like style). To make up for the pitfalls we’re treated to an ensemble cast featuring some of the biggest faces from the past 20 years of Hong Kong cinema, led by Anthony Wong, who puts in a great turn as a tired mob boss in his twilight. Gangster Payday isn’t for everyone: it’s a low-key, cutesy, and ultimately disappointing personal drama framed in a gangster movie; but the star power and talent of the cast (particularly Wong) prop up the film and keeping it watchable for the duration.
Infernal Affairs III: part sequel to number 2, and part semi-prequel to the original movie. The layout of the story in this film is ridiculous: it leaps all over the entire ‘Infernal Affairs’ timeline like a demented flea – so much so that it’s a chore trying to keep track of what’s before, after and between the previous two movies. It also doesn’t help matters that 6 characters have been thrown back on the screen after being killed in the first two movies! It even feels like it’s been directed by someone else, which it hadn’t, but tells us that even the director couldn’t be arsed. The signature moments of flare and tension are replaced with lots of forced, over-egged dramatic moments that rely on swooshy sound effects and slow-mo camera movements to create drama out of nothing. It really feels like IA3 only exists because the first two movies were so successful; it’s clearly retrospectively written, rushed, ill-conceived and a tad cynical. it’s a bit of a crushingly disappointing way of capping off a brilliant first and decent second film.
Infernal Affairs II / 無間道II: a prequel to Infernal Affairs, further backgrounding how both the police and the triads got their mole into the other’s organisation. Having to live up to such a great film clearly daunted most of those involved in this; it lacks any of the tension and urgency that makes the original great, and it’s a more superficial story spread finely over a longer runtime. The second tripping point is that there’s too many (underdeveloped) characters, meaning that the story’s just not as focused or tight. Of the two hour runtime, it picks up around 60 minutes, then drops back again until the dynamite ending – the rest feels like forced melodrama for the most part. Fortunately, two big hitters really pull the film along; Anthony Wong has an effortless presence, and Eric Tsang is surprisingly emotive for a gangster character – the only downside is that they share the screen time with everyone else. There are a few political elements like the Hong Kong handover, but it’s not really significant to the story, and feels like they’re there for stylistic / filler / nostalgia purposes. Finally, being a prequel, it lacks the sting in knowing that almost everyone survives because their characters are central in the first film. Infernal Affairs II not a bad film by any stretch, and sits above the generic Asian HK cop/triad films, but it feels like a hollow movie, created solely to ride on the coattails of the first film.
Infernal Affairs / 無間道: the Hong Kong triads have inserted a loyal mole into the police force, who themselves have an undercover officer in the same gang – which cover will get blown first? As soon as it starts you can tell that this is simply great storytelling; it’s not dumbed down, there’s no filler and most interestingly, very little shooting/action for a cop-gangster film. The scenes where both sides are simultaneously involved are truly heart-pounding – even after seeing this and the re-make several times each. Maximising the espionage, tension and suspicion this grips you like an anaconda for the entirety, and doesn’t let go until the final scene. The police mole also throws up an interesting moral dilemma in the final third of the movie. None of the highly-watchable central actors put a foot wrong, with solid performances from the who’s who in Hong Kong cast – the only rubbish character is the ridiculous, annoying girlfriend that should have been written out. Until recently, you knew that a foreign film was decent when Hollywood re-made it – sure The Departed is brilliant, but is essentially this with a 60 minute longer runtime. Infernal Affairs is better than decent, it’s better than brilliant, it is the gold standard of police dramas. Absolute must-see.
Vengeance / 復仇 [Blu Ray]: a French chef travels to Hong Kong to avenge a brutal attack on his daughter and her family. Having a mish-mash of French, English and Cantonese dialogue this clearly has international aspirations. As you’d expect from Johnnie To it’s a very well-directed film; in particular he gets the most out of his cast, even from the lead character – aging rocker (now botox-faced) Johnny Hallyday (!WTF!) – although Anthony Wong’s the real star as usual. To also wrings a lot of tension from many of the buildup and action scenes – although there is one nighttime shootout that’s a total mess, and several times when it changes from night to day (and vice versa) in 2 seconds flat. So it’s all good, until the film starts dragging on a bit, throwing up some strange plot twists (Memento anyone?) and generally falling into the ‘Asian Gangster’ pitfalls – many stylishly dressed gangster factions are all entangled with one another and disputes can only be settled through gun-centric confrontations – the only difference is the European actors, who seem a bit crowbarred in for international effect. As a Blu Ray, the picture’s OK and the sound is impressive enough (thunderous gunshots). Despite the big names and big story, for a person that’s seen scores of Asian gang movies, this has already faded in to the big pot of genre films.
Hard Boiled: a classic cops Vs Triads flick by John Woo, arguably at his peak. This is almost always cited as one of the best action films ever made, and with good reason. The bloodshed is so, so stylish and cool: slow-motion, intricate and technical. The action is completely mesmerising in places with explosions, bullets, bodies, weapons and debris all dancing around the frame. This is the closest thing to an action-ballet you’ll see, with long swooping shots, that make the even the most intricate of scenes seem effortless. It also has a real cinematic quality for the most part, with brilliant camera work jumping out in places – peaking with a meticulous 2 1/2 minute single-shot through hospital corridors and lifts, like a shoot-em-up game. The story is pretty standard – fallen colleague, hostage situations and undercover cops – but Woo avoids cliché by putting 90% of the focus on the action. There are some minor downsides to Hard Boiled; the hospital siege goes on for far too long (well over 40 minutes), The 1980s synth soundtrack is incredibly out of date and there’s a bizarro Jazz motif throughout. It’s also the only foreign film I deliberately watch with English dubs because the original audio is in worse synch than the voiceovers. All in, Hard Boiled is the definitive action film that takes all the best parts of a tired genre and makes them great again, and so much more watchable.
Beast Cops: A bunch so-called ‘policemen’ (how they’re remained gainfully employed was the biggest plot hole) get a new boss that tries to shake things up a bit. Unfortunately this one takes about 50 minutes of 1-dimensional character-building before anything interesting happens; we got it after 5 minutes – there’s no honour among thieves in Hong Kong! The acting’s very hit-or-miss, ranging from subtly great to parodic overacting, and at times the script makes it feel like a sexual awareness campaign. Other than the lame credits the style’s quite slick and does a great job in distracting you from the plain story, however the main actors break the fourth wall several times, which is strange and unnecessary. The last fight is a pretty epic and brutal affair, and generally everyone in this film ends up getting a machete lodged in their neck at some point. To sum up, this is the epitome of a bog-standard Asian cop flick with a twist of ‘gritty street’ thrown in for good measure. Talks the talk all over the DVD box but fails to walk the walk.