Once Upon a Time in Triad Society
Hong Kong 1996
Directed by Cha Chuen Yee.

Ugly Kwan shows exactly why he got his nickname, presenting two different versions of his life in the triad, while he lies on an operating table bleeding to death.

When we first meet wise-guy Kwan (Francis Ng), he is taking a shit and reading a comic book. And nothing defines this film and this character better. The comic book was written by Tony, a Japanese Yakusa member, and is an epic of honor, sacrifice, and brotherhood within the Triad. It's an image of triad life we've seen in countless films before. The comic book makes Kwan irrationally angry, and he wipes his ass with its pages.

Once Upon a Time in Triad Society takes us to a new place, never visited before in the Triad Boys films. It lets us know right away what it thinks of the Young & Dangerous series, each one of which opens as if it were the pages of a comic book come to life. As Kwan wipes his ass with the comic pages, and we hear it flushing, we symbolically understand that we will not be watching macho fantasy, this time. This time, we see how ugly triad life really is. And boy, is it ugly.

We learn in the opening scene that the comic writer, Tony, is waiting for Kwan, demanding that he be seen immediately. But before Kwan gets downstairs to greet his guest he takes a little time out to rape the daughter of his tailor. It doesn't go well, though: one of his men shoots the stubborn old tailor dead and Kwan orders that the daughter be sold to the Middle East as a prostitute. He finally makes it downstairs, and beats Tony to death with a bottle that just won't break. Finally he manages to break the bottle across Tony's face, long after we're certain he's dead. But somewhere along the way the point of the beating changed from killing Tony to breaking that goddamn bottle.

Walking outside with his gang, Kwan runs into the police, who are responding to a 911 call about a gunshot. He is in the midst of smooth-talking them when a van drives up and a shooter targets Kwan. Two cops go down in a hail of bullets before Kwan himself is shot in the chest. They are rushed to the hospital, where Kwan is ignored by the doctors and nurses while they operate on the cops. As Kwan is lying on a gurney in the lobby of the emergency room, bleeding to death and without medical care (oh, alright, one nurse does pat his gunshot wound with a napkin for a minute), he has time to reflect on his life and how he came to this moment.

And here is where the film really begins. Kwan takes us through his life not once but twice, showing us two very different versions of himself. In one, he dreams constantly of the kind of honorable triad life as portrayed in Tony's comic, but is betrayed time and time again by his friends, his boss, his lover. In this version of his life, he really believes what the comic book says, and strives to be great and loyal like the triad heroes are. In the end, after his life is shattered by the triads, he vows to be the most vicious, most heinous criminal of all. And by that point, we are just about rooting for him to be so.

But then he backtracks and takes another look at his life, and in this second version, we see that he was born bad, and he likes being bad. In this version, he ends up betraying and killing everyone close to him. He tells us this is the 'real' version of his life, and perhaps it is more accurate as far as telling the events that actually occured in his life. The first story explains that he is a bad guy through nurture, the second explains that it is his nature.

Even though Kwan dismisses his first account as a 'joke,' I found that I could not forget it. And I saw certain connections between it and the second account of his life. What ultimately makes the first story important is not the events that it depicts but the outlook on life that it reveals. Kwan might not have been unjustly betrayed by everyone in his life, but he believes that he is betrayed in other, more subtle ways. It's as if the first story is the one which Kwan wishes were true, an alternate world that he would be much more comfortable inhabiting than the real world he must face every day. This is the basic betrayal at the heart of the film: triad life is not like what appears in the comic books. Kwan learns the hard way that there is no honor among thieves.

As a result, Kwan becomes more and more vicious, more and more out of control. Ultimately, the constant violence, betrayal, scheming, and counter-scheming drives Kwan to a certain divine madness. He becomes like the bottle, constantly striking against death, never breaking.

This film is a classic. It's propelled forward by the intensity of Francis Ng as Kwan, in a career defining role, and by the strength of its screenplay. The cast is rounded out by the usual suspects, and fans of the Y&D films will see many familiar faces here. Even if you're tired of seeing Triad Boys films, in fact especially if you are, Once Upon a Time in Triad Society deserves your attention.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 08, 2004.

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