Hong Kong Crime Cinema #3: Once a Gangster (Hong Kong 2010)

'Swallow' (Ekin Cheng) with the chair faces his mother and her thugs who seek to persuade him to stand for election as Triad Chairman

‘Swallow’ (Ekin Cheng) with the chair faces his mother and her thugs who seek to persuade him to stand for election as Triad Chairman

This screening in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season at HOME featured a Q&A with director Felix Chong chaired by season curator Andy Willis. The director’s responses made for an entertaining post-screening discussion but it was the film itself that made the most impression. Interest in the screening meant that we were in HOME’s biggest cinema auditorium and the film was projected from a 35mm print in good condition for its UK première appearance.

Once a Gangster is a comedy crime film with the same mix of slapstick and violence as The Pilferer’s Progress earlier in the season, but it is much more concerned with what used to be term ‘intertextuality’ in the high period of postmodernism. In other words, many of the laughs in the film are based on recognition of the comic targets drawn from other films. The basic premise of the narrative mirrors that of Johnnie To’s Election (2005) (showing later in the season at HOME). The election of a new triad chairman is being organised and three candidates are being promoted by their supporters, two of them very reluctantly. The film’s climax will involve a search for the authentic Dragon Bone – the symbol of the chair’s authority (here neatly stamped with the legend ‘Made in Hong Kong’). The innovation here is a prologue set several years earlier in which we see a young chef joining the triad in order to be successful in the restaurant business. This is ‘Roast Pork’ who will become one of the contenders for Chairman in the main narrative. Meanwhile ‘Swallow’ (or ‘Sparrow’) has been in prison and is nominated by his mother as another candidate. The joke here for HK crime film fans is that these two contenders are played by Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng, stars of the 1990s series Young and Dangerous.

Felix Chong takes a pot-shot at his own work as well. He was one of the main scriptwriters on the Infernal Affairs trilogy in the early 2000s and here he introduces an undercover cop played by Wilfred Lau as a ‘look-alike’ Tony Leung. This hapless character is the personal assistant of the third contender for Triad Chairman, the equally gormless ‘Scissors’ (Conroy Chan). There are probably several more references like this but they escaped me during the screening. I did react to the music which from the opening credits announced the nature of the fictional world about to be presented to us. I recognised the reference to Italian popular films and later Felix Chong confirmed that he had chosen “spaghetti western music” simply because he thought it was funny. The film also delivers several very funny sight gags, some with an almost cartoonish quality (including a nod to the ‘One-Armed Swordsman’).

The film overall has a strange ‘out of time’ feel. A series of flashbacks are presented in grainy, scratched and colour degraded stock but the prologue and the ‘present’ both feel like they could be the 1980s. ‘Swallow’ emerges from prison proclaiming the ‘wise words’ of Milton Friedman, the economist responsible for the spread of monetarism in the 1980s. Friedman did visit Hong Kong and promoted its economy as a good example of the ‘free market’. I guess his ideas do fit a gangster’s conception of the world but I thought the appearance of Friedman’s book was the most terrifying thing in the film. The book appears in a scene featuring a bookshop and several audience members responded to this with recognition of the current censorship by the mainland government and the ‘disappearance’ of booksellers. There may well be references to the 2010 political situation in the film, but I didn’t notice them.

In the Q&A Felix Chong admitted that the film had not been a big hit. He told us the budget was small and that he had only 20 days to shoot the film so in the circumstances he did rather well! Most interesting, he told us that when he screened the film, both police officers and gangsters asked him how he knew so much about what happened in these kinds of situations. We take this with a sackful of salt perhaps but I take much more notice of his comments that the ‘godfathers’ of crime are now sending their sons (and daughters?) to university to get MBAs. In the film, Swallow is a reluctant contender for triad chair because he wants to go to Hong Kong University to study economics (again a trope recognisable from Election in 2005).

Felix Chong also wrote and co-directed three Overheard films (2009/11/14). Two of these have already been screened in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season and the third is tonight with Felix Chong again present for a Q&A. I wish I could be there – I’m sure it will be another treat.

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