Born to be King
Hong Kong 2000
Directed by Andrew Lau.

In the (so far) final entry in the Young & Dangerous series, Ho Nam (Ekin Cheng) learns that nothing says success more than having your own personal attache.

Chicken (Jordan Chan) has his own chauffeur. The Hung Hing boys are all grown up, and doing quite well for themselves. But at the same time Ho Nam's personal life is becoming a shambles. He still grieves over the death of his girlfriend, Smartie (Gigi Lai), so much so that he ignores his current girl Mei Ling (Shu Qi) and when he notices a woman with a striking resemblance to Smartie, he starts stalking her for a while.

Ho Nam's personal troubles form an effective subplot, but it is Chicken's story that takes center stage. He is back with the Taiwanese San Luen gang, as the head of the Poisonous Snake Hall brach. (Continuity check: No mention is made of the events in Young and Dangerous 4, in which Chicken leaves the Taiwanese gang to rejoin Hung Hing). As the youngest branch leader, he is asked to marry the daughter of Kusakari Ichiro (Sonny Chiba) of the Yamada Gang in Japan, and thus build business and political ties between the two gangs.

The wedding brings together the San Luen gang of Taiwan, the Hung Hing of Hong Kong, and the Yamada of Japan, with Chicken as the pivot point between each of the groups. So when an attempt is made on his life, and his wife is assaulted, events are put into motion which put the gangs on a collision course.

Running parallel to the gang conflict is a larger one which threatens to engulf them all, between China and Taiwan. The story begins on March 18, 2000, election day in Taiwan, when Democratic candidate Chen Shui-bian wins the election over current president and Nationalist Party member Lee Teng-hui. It is the first time in the history of Taiwan that the Nationalists are not in power. Lee Teng-hui resigns, in disgrace. And as for the Taiwanese San Luen gang, they are a little rattled -- they supported the Nationalists as usual, but suprisingly lost, this time. No one is certain what the new President will do about the triads, or if he is agreeable to corruption. An even bigger concern for the Taiwanese is his pro-independence stance, which if followed may lead to open war with China.

The San Luen gang is shaken by the political upheaval, and looking for a new leader themselves. It seems a natural for the son of their previous leader. But the young Mr. Lui (Peter Ho) seems reluctant for the post. He is such a little weasel it is difficult to understand why anyone would want him as a leader, but they press him on the issue regardless. At the same time, he tries to make arrangements with the new government to maintain cordial relations.

Born to Be King ends on May 20, the day of Chen Shui-bian's inauguration. At the same time, a new leader of San Luen is inaugurated. The two ceremonies happen simultaneously. Chen Shui-bian, on accepting the presidency, says this about triads:

The topmost initiatives of my promise to "rule by the clean and upright" are to eliminate "black gold" -- the involvement of organized crime in politics -- and to eradicate vote-buying. For a long time, the Taiwanese people have been deeply repelled by money politics and the interference of organized crime...These have tainted the development of Taiwan's democracy. Today, I am willing to promise hereby that the new government will eliminate vote-buying and crack down on "black gold" politics, so that Taiwan can rise above such downward sinking forces.

He further says, of China:
As long as the CCP regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan, I pledge that during my term in office, I will not declare independence, I will not change the national title...While upholding the principles of democracy and parity, building upon the existing foundations...we believe that the leaders on both sides possess enough wisdom and creativity to jointly deal with the question of a future "one China."

And in the end, the Hung Hing boys speculate: "Today is May 20. The presdient gave his inaugural address. -- would China attack Taiwan?" "Guess not! We are all Chinese. Why would Chinese fight Chinese?" Why, indeed.

Born to Be King is about cultural connections and divisions between Asian nations. While the gangs try to forge relationships with one another, overcoming misunderstandings, conflict emerges from other, unexpected places. In an izakaya (a drinking and snack bar) in Japan, Blackie Ko (er...Blacky Ko) sings some Taiwanese songs to his Hong Kong guests, who smile and enjoy the celebration. But a table of Chinese men nearby take offence, and only the reputation of the Yamada gang can stop a fight. In Taipei, leadership of the San Luen gang is open, but when Chicken is nominated as a potential candidate, he is much maligned simply because he is not Taiwanese, he is a foreigner. But on the other hand, Chicken attempts to communicate to his new wife, and even without having a common language, they form a bond.

The Hung Hing boys have grown more distant from the common street crime lifestyle they led just a few movies ago. Now, when two boys start a fight in one of Ho Nam's nightclubs, they are unrecognizable to Ho Nam. The boys have their hair dyed red and green, wear necklaces and ripped blue jeans. Ho Nam and Pei-Pee wear black Armani suits. In moments like these it becomes even more striking how far they have come, how much has changed.

Clocking in at around two hours, Born to Be King is certainly the most complicated film in the Young and Dangerous series, even if it may not be the best. Because of the constant jet-setting of our heroes, the film is less cohesive than it should have been, at times taking on the feel of a series of vignettes in the lives of Ho Nam and Chicken. Moments of character development take precedence over following the linear plot. But perhaps at this point, after so many movies, the characters are the main attraction, and the interest lies in seeing just what they are up to these days. In any case, the movie as a whole is not as good as some of its parts.

The acting is strong throughout, for the most part. Sonny Chiba is good as the head of the Yamada gang, but unfortunately an injury during the shoot meant that his role is somewhat less than it probably could have been. Nevertheless, in an early scene, a friendly bout of Kendo (a traditional Japanese martial art fought with wooden swords) allows Ho Nam to show his fighting spirit.

Shu Qi, as Mei Ling, Ho Nam's girlfriend, turns in another excellent performance. She is really obnoxious for most of the film, telling jokes, being silly. But through it all comes a certain desperation of a woman trying to get through to the man she loves -- and not succeeding. It is absolutely heartbreaking. She forces on big smiles, pretends to fake being upset when she really is. It becomes clear all too soon that Ho Nam is not with her, even when he is with her, and that she is fighting a losing battle. She dreams of marriage, of having babies. He dreams of his dead girlfriend.

It is an unwritten rule in the Young and Dangerous series: if your character dies, you come back in a later movie as a villain. Born to Be King proves this rule in spades, bringing back as new characters two deceased Hung Hing gang members. And what Young and Dangerous film would be complete without bringing back Roy Cheung as another villain? This makes his third appearance, for those keeping track. This time he plays Akira, the bitter adopted son of Kusakari Ichiro. When Chicken swears to kill him, I thought to myself, "Third time's a charm!"

Although Born to Be King suffers from its scattershot plotting, its overlong running time, and its occasional too-familiar plot contrivances, on balance its strengths outweigh these weaknesses. The parallels to Taiwan's recent election prove that, after 1997, Hong Kong movies may still have relevant things to say politically. Andrew Lau's directing continues to become more stylized, the look and feel of Born to Be King exclusively his own. A sharp film which I recommend, but be warned that you will not get much out of it unless you have already seen most of the Young and Dangerous films that have come before.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 19, 2004.

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