I went into this viewing knowing pretty much nothing about this film. Coming out the other side, I’m happy to report that One Nite in Mongkok is a pretty successful cops and triads drama. It’s focus wanders a little bit from time to time, but it’s also got some heart, looks great and tosses a few surprises out there which pushes it solidly into the positive category.
Before I get into the heart of the review I just want to get the following off my chest.
Sometimes I miss the old style of Hong Kong triad films (the stuff that forever branded Hong Kong cinema as only over the top action-fests.*) There’s something about the late 80s/early 90s “ten thousand bullets” style that is still really appealing to me even after having seen what seems like 101 mostly derivative variations on the theme. They could be simple at times, and definitely lacked some polish, but they were easy to digest and generally produced at least some cheap thrills. And that’s just talking about the generic knockoffs. The real classics from the period are, of course, hard to beat by any measure you care to throw at them.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to turn the clock back to return to wall-to-wall John Woo inspired bulletfests. To be perfectly honest, I probably like the films of the past ten years at least as much as I liked the films of the ten years before that (which coincidentally brings us right to the doorstep of A Better Tomorrow,) I just sometimes want one of these modern films to degenerate into an orgy of mindless violence.
Before I derail any further, I should point out that the previous actually makes sense in the scope of this review as the plot of One Nite in Mongkok would have served extremely well as the springboard for a typical 80s style Hong Kong actioner. Telling the story of a war between rival gangs, the cops trying to stop them and a hit man from the mainland thrust into the middle of it all, One Nite in Mongkok could have sequed into some over-the-top action sequences with very little effort. Picture someone like Hard-Boiled era Phillip Kwok as the mainland hitman add in Danny Lee as a disgruntled police captain and then just let your mind wander over the possibilities.
Of course, instead of that old school approach this film presents more of the Hong Kong aesthetic + Hollywood style thriller mash-up common to films from the SAR over the past few years; focusing on the cops attempts to hunt down the hired killer and the killer’s attempts to navigate his way through the unfamiliar streets of Mongkok (as is noted in the film, the most densely populated area in the world.) It’s well done stuff. The cops are a scruffy, complicated bunch with an interesting group dynamic and the character of the hit man, played by Daniel Wu, is a great pivot around which the film revolves. He’s a complex, somewhat disarming character. Strong, faithful, but just naive enough to get himself into real trouble and vulnerable in both a literal and figurative sense he’s just the right sort of character to carry a film like this.
By biggest complaint about the film is that it probably spreads itself a little too thin, trying to touch on too many separate elements sacrificing a little bit of the main trunk in the process. Thankfully the bulk of the film focuses on Wu’s character, which is probably why I liked it as mush as I did, but there are several other story-lines that are only vaguely touched upon: a hot-headed young cop; an older cop with a “past”; that sort of thing. It certainly adds something to the group dynamic and creates a little bit of a tapestry feel, but they don’t take it far enough to really make it worthwhile. There are some interesting bits here and there but there’s so little attention paid to some of these side stories they just don’t gel as well as the main story. This is just nit-picking, however, as a couple of the subplots that I felt were extraneous actually tie themselves together in a neat package in the well wrought ending.
Definitely worth a look.
*I had a conversation about Infernal Affairs versus The Departed and the person I was talking to just assumed, with a certainty that was surprising, that because it was from Hong Kong it was nothing more than a mindless action film. What’s funny is, from what I’ve head, Infernal Affairs is actually less violent than the Scorcese version.
This review was originally published on DrunkenFist.com in 2004.