Fai (Nick Cheung) grew up in Mongkok. In the 1970s, Fai replaced his pal, Porky, to go on a killing mission. He was shot at the back by the rookie police constable Gunner (Liu Kai Chi) and put in jail. However, this incident made him a Mongkok legend. Serving his prison terms, Fai’s personality split into two – one was a fearless hitman; the other was a timid, indecisive pacifist who longed to live a peaceful life. With the help of Legislative Councilor Lady Han (Chan Lai Wan), Fai was paroled after nearly 30 years behind the bars. Hen he returned to Mongkok, he found the place changed beyond recognition. Even his mother (Paw Hee Ching),who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, did not recognize him. At this time, the crime group he belonged is in the process of electing a new leader. His old pal Porky wanted to make use of Fai’s legendary status to boost his popularity, while Peter planned to get rid of Fai by soliciting help from Gunner. Could Fai avoid getting involved in a possible gang war? Could he get out of Mongkok – a bigger and more dangerous prison?
In between his signature lowbrow comedies (e.g. On His Majesty’s Secret Service), Wong Jing takes time to insert the occasional ‘highbrow’ drama to broaden his repertoire of films. “I Corrupt All Cops” was one such film and here is another, the gangland-themed “To Live and Die in Mongkok”. Starring last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Best Actor Nick Cheung, the film aspires to be an astute social drama about the life of an ex-con.
Cheung stars as Fai, who as a brash teenager, was sent to prison for almost twenty-eight years after murdering a list of people from the opposite gang. The years in prison have not been kind to Fai, and he’s developed two personalities to deal with his violent issues. Wong Jing doesn’t have the subtlety to let one actor portray this, so he uses two- the calm and controlled Fai is played by Cheung; while his aggressive former self is played by another actor, Tang Tak Po.
Jing and his fellow director Billy Chung try to tell a story of how Fai remains trapped in his own past despite his physical release from jail with many disparate story strands. There’s the ascent of his former pal Porky (Willie Wai) to the head of the triad and the challenge the uncouth and unpolished Porky faces from a clever, meticulous rival (Patrick Tam); then there’s the mainland prostitute Pamela (Monica Mok) who is trying to protect her mentally challenged younger sister Penny (Natalie Meng) from Porky’s sexual advances; and finally there’s Liu Kai-Chi’s flawed cop who harbours a secret from his past arrest of Fai.
It’s a lot to pack within a 90 min movie and sure enough, the narrative strains considerably from having just too many things happening at the same time. Instead of placing its focus on Fai’s struggle to rehabilitate back into society, the film gets distracted by all these other disparate events that do little to enhance the main story. One also gets the strong feeling that Wong Jing is labouring to coalesce everything into a coherent whole by the end of the film; and despite his best efforts, the sum of these little pieces just doesn’t add up agreeably.
No thanks to Wong Jing’s frenzied script, Nick Cheung’s sophomore outing after his award-winning “Beast Stalker” turns out to be a surprisingly underwhelming affair. Playing only one half of a character does him little favour to show off his mettle and indeed, Wong Jing should have simply let Cheung take on the role of Fai all by himself instead of getting another actor to play his other crazied half. None of the other actors are also given much space to show off their acting chops, despite their apparent credentials that make this seem more than just another triad flick.
And perhaps that is the greatest disappointment with this film that touts its award-winning stars firmly on its sleeve. Despite the potential of the cast assembled here, as well as some good ideas, Wong Jing’s film is neither sharp enough to be social commentary, poignant enough to be intimate drama or exciting enough to be an action flick- though it does try to be all three at the same time. Worse still, it doesn’t have the ambition of Jing’s earlier “I Corrupt All Cops”. Watchable though it may be, “To Live and Die in Mongkok” does little for Wong Jing’s cred as a filmmaker and would largely just be remembered for what it could have been and what it is not.
The film is presented in both its Cantonese and Mandarin audio tracks, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is nicely involving when it can be. Image has a washed out feel thanks to Wong Jing’s choice of colour palette for the movie.
Review by Gabriel Chong
Posted on 18 April 2010