You might not think a lot can happen in one night, but then maybe you’ve never been to Mongkok, Hong Kong’s most densely populated area. At the heart of Derek Yee’s 2004 film One Nite in Mongkok is a city that never sleeps, that has so many streets and alleys and lanes and buildings and people, it might be more prudent to think that everything can happen. In an interesting departure from type, the director builds a suspenseful and refreshingly conceived crime thriller film from old genre mainstays and weaves into it the unpredictable nature of urban life and the bizarre circumstance of degrees of separation. As the film’s title suggests, the story takes place in a single night: to be more specific, it starts the previous day, with a series of seemingly random events. An altercation between night markets sellers on the streets of the city leads to a gang fight in a bar, which leads to the accidental death of a triad boss’ son, which leads to some seriously bad blood between two factions of crime that had, up until that point, been mostly co-existing.
This sets the scene for the play off between the film’s heroes – the cops, led by the quietly charismatic Alex Fong as Milo – and the criminal, newbie hitman from the mainland Lai Fu, played by Daniel Wu. Oddly though, the use of the term ‘play off’ here is in fact somewhat misleading, because that’s exactly what the two men, one virtually alone in a strange city and the other an under-appreciated, over-taxed CID detective in the HK police force, spend almost the whole film not doing. The tension cause by this constant, ‘just missed him’ set up, and the way that Yee keeps his audience guessing as to exactly where things will end up through the interweave of elements, is seriously nail-biting stuff.
For reasons that seem to be very much his own, mainlander Lai Fu comes to Hong Kong as per the arrangements made by mafia small fry and all round fix-it man Liu (Lam Suet), to assassinate one of the crime bosses over the earlier day’s argument. How he’s actually going to follow this through is a question that’s posed quite early on, because as serious as this young man is, he seems a little, well, hick, to be pulling off professional hits on triad leaders. He’s all pointdexter pants, thick-rim glasses and seemingly very little clue, and as soon as down-and-out mainland hooker Dan Dan (Cecilia Chung) sees him, she knows he’s one out-of-towner that’s going to need a tour guide to help him navigate the evils of the fast life. Possibly she wouldn’t have volunteered for the job if she’d known Clark Kent was going to kill someone but unfortunately for her, as hick as Lai appears, he’s a bit like a Vespa – fast enough to get himself into trouble, but possibly not fast enough to get himself out of it.
Giving the antagonist this clueless, everyman innocence, which Wu pulls off quite well, and teaming him up with whore-with-a-heart Cheung, is very clever character investment, and it pays off. But not before some quality time is spent with Officer Milo, who’s had word that a hit is going down and knows precisely what kind of mess it’s going to make of the Mongkok precinct if he lets it happen. Whether it’s actually true or not, a staple of HK crime stories seems to be the balance the police artfully maintain between crime-ridden and crime-free, and Fong’s practical, slightly harassed detective is both believable and engaging in this capacity. Mildly bad-ass, slightly cynical, understated and clever; if he wasn’t a main character he’d probably be one of those cool guys wandering around in the background actually getting things done and taking no credit. It makes him immediately likeable.
Which is where you start running into trouble, which is exactly where the director was trying to take you, because you like the good guy and you don’t want the streets of Hong Kong to turn into an overnight blood bath, but you like the bad guy too, and you kind of want him to find whatever it is that he came for and get the hell back to the mainland in one piece. However as the day’s, and then evening’s, events unfold, escalating towards their conclusion, it seems more and more likely that only one of them is going to get what they want, and not in any way that you probably saw coming.
Yee won Best Director and Best Screenplay at the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards for this film, and they’re awards inarguably deserved. One Nite in Mongkok is a good-looking, focused thriller with some great character development, unexpected dramatic turns and a decent serving of grit and realism. That it seems to have no point, that it imparts no illuminating truths at its end, is actually itself the point: it’s just one night after all, and anything can happen in a night.