Review: Once a Gangster (2010)

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Anyone with an interest in contemporary Hong Kong cinema has seen a film with Felix Chong’s screenwriter-fingerprints all over it, from this year’s Donnie Yen action spectacular (well, one of them!) The Lost Bladesman to the much-lauded Infernal Affairs trilogy. Usually, he works alongside Alan Mak, with whom he shares most of his writing credits, and often it seems that director Andrew Lau’s involved as well.

Not so for Once a Gangster, Chong’s first film as solo director. Years of experience writing excellent films about loyalty and heroism in the criminal underworld have been poured into this: a darkly funny comedy about what happens when the top candidates for control of a triad don’t really want the job.

Once a Gangster reunites HK actors Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng, looking quite a bit older than they did in the Young and Dangerous series that propelled the triad drama genre in the late 90’s. Jordan Chan plays Roast Pork, the son of a chef who’s inducted into the gang as a gormless youngster by ambitious boss Kerosene (Alex Fong). Kerosene doesn’t have much in the way of territory, but he has dreams: he promises Roast Pork that when he becomes Don, Roast Pork will open a restaurant in every district he controls. Thus begins Kerosene’s rise to power, with Roast Pork and his other lads beside him all the way — carrying bloodied machetes.

Fast-forward to the present, and everyone’s got what they were after: Kerosene is the Don and Roast Pork has his restaurants and a family. There’s just one problem: Kerosene’s loaded the society with debts and wants to hand his position to Roast Pork, and Roast Pork wants to go legit and leave the triads completely. Add to that the recent release from jail of Sparrow (Ekin Cheng), the promised heir to the Don’s throne, and we have a war for succession nicely bubbling along.

Once a Gangster is at once an homage to and a spoof of the dozens of Hong Kong films in which there’s an upset in the criminal underworld and two or three upstart gangsters vie to be Number One. As well as the obvious connections to Young and Dangerous, there’s a very funny parody of Infernal Affairs in which Wilfred Lau (doing his best hangdog Tony Leung Chiu-Wai impression) infiltrates the triad as a ridiculously obvious undercover cop, and the film also draws quite a bit from Johnnie To’s magnificent Election.

As with many HK films that satirise their genres, there is a very local flavour to this film — I’m sure that there were a pile of references that just flew over my head — but this doesn’t stop it being very funny outside the HKSAR. There are frequent dips into broad comedy, mostly courtesy of Roast Pork’s relationship with his wife Nancy (Michelle Yu), the inept scheming of triad small fry Scissors (Conroy Chan), and scenery chewing from Sparrow’s mother, Pearl (On-on Yu).

That’s not to say it’s all comedy, though; there are enough sprays of arterial crimson and stuntmen on fire that you could easily cut together a trailer that suggested the film was a by-the-numbers triad thriller. Felix Chong’s direction is serviceable; it’s not as assured as his work with Alan Mak on The Lost Bladesman, which I saw on the same day, but it’s a much smaller film done on a fraction of the budget. And it’s a good deal funnier.

For those who have had their fill of rigid devotion to underworld honour, Once a Gangster may be just the thing.

7 confiscated batons of office out of 10.
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