One Nite in Mongkok

This film hurt. Perhaps a lot of that is what I brought to it though. These days it is impossible to get away from the violence that seems to be seeping into every fabric of our lives. Every day you read the paper and it is more of the same – terrorist attacks killing innocent people who woke up that day with every expectation of living through it, husbands killing their wives, mothers killing their children, strangers killing strangers and a country invading another for reasons that never existed and so many dead as a result. Isn’t it sad though that we only talk about the thousand dead Americans and no one mentions the thousands upon thousands of dead Iraqi civilians that we came to “save” as if their lives don’t matter. Not in election time I guess. There is so much anger in the world and the response inevitably seems to be violence to others. It saddens me and I think it saddens the director of this film, Derek Yee.
Yee’s portrait of Hong Kong and humankind is touching but ultimately extraordinarily pessimistic. A humane picture of desperate people looking for something good in their lives to latch on to – love, community, friendship or simply getting though the night – but they can’t escape the violence that crawls along the city streets looking for victims. And the violence isn’t linear, but more like atomic particles rushing by one another until they collide which sends them into unexpected directions to crash into other particles and so on infinitely. All this plays out on the densely packed streets of Mongkok as particles try not to collide with one another, but inevitably do. This wasn’t a message that I wanted to hear – I wanted them to come face to face with violence and walk away – I wanted to see mercy – I wanted to see understanding – I wanted to see hope – but Yee shows us very little of that as he seems to be saying that at the beginning of the 21st century there is an ever diminishing supply of this in the world.
There is a fight over turf as two sellers of fake Rolexes within different gangs clash. It is not much of a fight – a few punches thrown but like a small pebble tossed into a pond it creates waves that disturb everything around it. Later that night a gang member comes across a member of the other gang (Sam Lee) in a nightclub and smashes a bottle across his head. When he drives away with a girl from the club who had broken up the confrontation, Lee follows and inadvertently crashes into the car and kills him and the girl is badly burnt. The dead gang member is the son of a triad head and revenge is naturally his course as he puts a contract out on the head of Lee’s gang (Henry Fong Ping). The contract is handled by a middleman (Lam Suet) who brings in a Mainlander (Daniel Wu) for his first job as a hitman.
The police get word of all this happening and the squad leader (Alex Fong) and his men (among them Chin Kar-lok, Ken Wong and Anson Leung) venture out on the streets on Christmas Eve to stop the impending killing by either locking up the two bosses or finding the hitman. Wu comes to Hong Kong and checks into a rundown hotel where he intrudes upon a man beating up a Mainland prostitute (Cecilia Cheung) and gives him a thrashing. Wu has more than a killing on his agenda though, he has also come to look for his girl who came to Hong Kong from their small village and who he has lost track of. He hires Cecilia to help him find her. As the two go in search for her they soon realize that the police are on their trail as Suet has been forced to give him up to them and they are soon on the run. In their time together they show each other small signs of kindness and mercy and a picture of hope begins to emerge but Wu has a deadline approaching for him to kill someone and the police are right behind them. It is a long night ahead of all these people and some won’t make it to the morning.
Within the fairly conventional plot of a hitman, a prostitute and the cops after them, Yee does wonders and never makes a false move until the end. He takes all the various threads and the myriad of characters and ties them into a seamless whole that is fascinating, slick and tensely paced. Though the story jumps around from character to character, with small cinematic brushes Yee paints their personalities quickly and makes them into real conflicted people with depth – even for the minor characters. By the end of the night you feel like these are real people that you care about – not stock characters waiting to be written out of the script.
There is so much good that goes on here - the location shooting, the shadowy atmosphere, the realistic mix of Mandarin and Cantonese, the acting (Wu doing perhaps his best work yet), the camera work, the authentic feel of it all, the small things like the reverberation of a gun or Fong quietly comforting a rookie – but his final choices almost destroy the film for me on an emotional level (though not my appreciation for it) as he falls back on the use of some cinematic clichés and far too many co-incidences to bring about his wanted ending. Even here though he does it powerfully, painfully – the image of a bleeding hand reaching for one last moment of human contact before death is gutwrenching and Yee reinforces his pessimism by having it fall short.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Reviewed by Lee Alon

You can't keep a good city down, and with Derek Yee's massively straight-faced nocturnal crime flick, this particular notion makes itself once more apparent with regards to trusty old Hong Kong.

Seven Elevens bathed in fluorescents, sleazy cheapo hotels, dark alleys, teeming shopping districts and rambunctious sidewalk snack fests. Sure, all regulars in Johnnie To and Wong Kar Wai movies, but it’s been sometime since we’ve seen them in a project so effortlessly evocative of all the unique atmosphere HK has to offer, easily bringing back images of the fragrant harbor's unbeatable charm. Plus, it comes in to salvage the day exactly when we thought the cops-and-robbers genre took an unsolicited sojourn somewhere up in the mountains. What a refreshing reprieve!

ONIMK sees two of HK's most promising (and by now established) thespians give it their best. Daniel Wu enters the fray as Lai Fu, an almost mechanically introspective no-name assassin hired by Mongkok triad operative Liu Ge (embodied by reliable Lam Suet) as expeditor of certain underworld disagreements requiring resolution.
Armed with a gun, heaps of money and stoic dispositions, Lai Fu begins prowling the vibrant borough's streets, in search of his assigned target.
However, things change once he meets fellow mainlander Dan Dan, a decent person eking a meager existence by prostituting herself to the pleasure of dubious clients. Here, Cecilia Cheung simply shines as the female lead, apparently well recovered from her back injury of two years ago, and definitely looking her sexiest since 1999's memorable Fly Me to Polaris.
Lai Fu and Dan Dan hit it off following a customer-related incident in which the former literally saves her ass, and proceed to trawl around the place, with Lai Fu obviously not in his element, maybe due to Dan Dan's tagging along and repeatedly benefiting from the young man's newly-acquired wad of crisp bills. Realizing his former sweetheart got herself mangled in a gangland-related car wreck (driven by Made in Hong Kong's Sam Lee) doesn't precisely help his focus, either.
Matters take a different course when the story shifts to indulge in goings on at a CID unit led by a veteran detective (done by Alex Fong). His mixed team, comprising experienced officers as well as total novices, eventually becomes embroiled in Lai Fu's fatal odyssey as they attempt to keep him from carrying out his maligned mission. En route we take detours into several semi-related nighttime antics, with the CID crew slowly getting closer to ending Lai Fu and Dan Dan's haphazard escape. Not only do both plot lines enjoy excellent scripting, they moreover showcase the film's enthralling duality, as we track vagabonds and cops, each faction with its own internal turmoil and background. Overall, ONIMK does very well in depicting protagonists, and when the two threads finally converge, the movie delivers with considerable impact.
Although everyone in the main cast contributes their fair share, kudos go mostly to Daniel and Cecilia. Each has a concrete presence here, lending characters believable, coherent personalities and instant viewer identification.  Wu's practically indestructible, inscrutable and at the same time, timid. Cheung manages a versatile performance of laudable depth, concurrently lascivious, honest and wittily funny. And Alex Fong's portrayal of the jaded yet humane police lifer challenges preconceptions, putting a twist on this rather pigeon-holed role.
But above all else, One Nite in Mongkok's an atmospheric ode to both genre and locale. Its camera work exposes every environmental component with care, granting equal import to the seedy, banal, titillating and tacky. Via such ace cinematography and a moody soundtrack that sticks in the mind, this film indeed makes one feel as if they are going through the night themselves, the hours passing while Hong Kong celebrates an oddly disjointed Christmas Eve, day turning into darkness.
Add masterful acting, and we have before us a tour de force combining the gritty, hard hitting elegance of good crime movies with the stylish intelligence of proper indie. Unarguably one of the best releases of 2004, and a title sure to engage your DVD player for more than one night.

Rating: 9/10

Directed by Derek Yee
Starring Cecilia Cheung, Daniel Wu, Alex Fong, Lam Suet, Anson Leung
2004, Putonghua/Cantonese, 110 minutes

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