Once a Gangster 2010 Review: The film is already good stuff for the Hong Kong Cinema faithful

Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan are back – though things aren’t what they used to be. Writer-director Felix Chong’s Once a Gangster brings back the Young and Dangerous boys in a triad movie satire about aging gangsters thrust into a potential gang war where only one can emerge victorious. The winner gets to be head of the Wo Yee Sing triad, while the loser gets absolutely zip. The twist: Roast Pork (Jordan Chan) wants to be the loser. He’s only up for the top spot because his lousy boss Kerosene (a hilariously scheming Alex Fong Chung-Sun) wants to saddle Roast Pork with the gang’s large debt. Can Roast Pork find a way to extricate himself from the triad election. And continue his dream profession, to be a chef?

It won’t be easy. Roast Pork is being cajoled into the leader/fall guy role because of such concepts as honor, brotherhood and face – you know, the stuff that usually makes for good triads in your typical Hong Kong movie. Kerosene essentially uses a guilt trip to force Roast Pork into the running, but Roast Pork plots with his randy wife (a funny and fiery Michelle Ye) to somehow get out of the situation.

Their best bet is the offspring of loud triad madam Pearl (an overacting Candace Yu). Her son Sparrow (Ekin Cheng) was promised leadership after a 20-year stint in the slammer, and when he’s freed he immediately gets a huge entourage and heads into town, grinning like some would-be triad kingpin. Who’ll be the top dog, the chef who doesn’t want to be Number One, or the suave ex-con who seemingly wants the job? It should be obvious, right?

But it’s not. Once a Gangster (Nguoi Trong Giang Ho: Gac Kiem) may feature serious triad actors but it’s a subversive laffer. Using surreal comedy, broad performances, local satire and deadpan absurdities to send up its genre. Some of the stuff won’t translate so well to western audiences; a classic Maria Cordero tune (featured in Ringo Lam’s Prison on Fire) is belted out ironically by a large assemblage of triad dudes, and the many references to local economic, political and even geographical issues may be lost on non-Hong Kongers.

At the same time, there’s some smart satire here, and everyone seems to be having a good time getting in on the joke. The gags lampooning triad film clichés are incisive and recognizable (e.g., the obvious Election references), and the extended Infernal Affairs parody, which features Wilfred Lau in a dog-eared Tony Leung Chiu-Wai impression, is fun stuff. The whole film may be a tad esoteric for the casual Hong Kong Cinema fan. But there’s still plenty to enjoy.

Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan are back – though things aren’t what they used to be

Unfortunately, Felix Chong’s direction isn’t so sharp. Chong previously co-directed such films as Moonlight in Tokyo and Overheard. One a quirky character comedy and the other a solid commercial thriller. Once a Gangster skews towards Moonlight with its sometimes dark and off-kilter laughs. But this sort of comedy is hard to effectively present. Chong is no Pang Ho-Cheung. And sometimes the gags sag underneath suspect camera placement or shot length. Also, the film was clearly done on the cheap, and Chong doesn’t compensate well. Many scenes take place in distracting darkness. Where the shadows seem to exist only to hide the fact that they couldn’t afford quality art direction. The performances are wildly uneven too, with many of the actors seemingly acting against rather than with one another. For a first-time solo effort, Felix Chong does a passable job, but there’s room for improvement.

Still, Chong’s direction doesn’t hurt the film’s entertainment value, and he paces the film decently. What he can’t overcome, though, is the fact that his top-billed star doesn’t even appear before an hour(!) onto the film. Ekin Cheng’s Sparrow isn’t even mentioned until the film is way past the halfway point. And his performance only clicks because it lampoons his legendary Young and Dangerous character. Thankfully, Jordan Chan (Tran Tieu Xuan) picks up the slack, and despite the uneven nature of the performances, there are some standouts.

Conroy Chan steals his scenes as a less-than-sharp triad boss lusting for the top spot. And it’s fun to see Derek Tsang and Wong Yau-Nam essay younger versions of Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng (Trinh Y Kien). And hey, just having Ekin and Jordan together again represents some sort of Hong Kong Cinema triumph. In some ways, the two actors are like David Chiang and Ti Lung. Two guys who shared the screen so often that their careers are largely intertwined. Once a Gangster is already good stuff for the Hong Kong Cinema faithful. Seeing the two Hung Hing boys back together is just the cherry on top.

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