One Night in Mongkok
Hong Kong 2004
Directed by Derek Yee.


One gang boss puts out a hit on another gang boss. Lai Fu (Daniel Wu), an empovershed mainlander they recruit for the job, arrives in Hong Kong while Officer Milo (Alex Fong) and his team (including Chin Kar-Lok and Ken Wong) try to track down both bosses and the assassin between them so everyone can go home for Christmas. Lai Fu tries to evade the police and complete his mission, but ends up falling in with a mainland prostitute from his village (Cecilia Cheung) and spends much of his time looking for his old girlfriend, who, it slowly dawns on him, might also have turned to prostitution to make a living.

Aside from the basic storyline, ONE NIGHT IN MONGKOK is about violence and its effects. Unlike most triad and police pictures, here every confrontation has repercussions that last far beyond the initial fight. Violence perpetuates itself. The movie begins with two fake-rolex watch sellers, one poaching on the other's turf. It leads to a fistfight, which leads to a bigger gang confrontation at a karaoke bar, which leads to a car chase and the death of Tiger, the son of a gang boss. And so the hit on the other gang boss comes out of an argument between fake rolex hawkers, spiralled out of control.

The police are divided between those who have shot and killed men in the line of duty, and those that have not. Inbetween is a rookie cop who just doesn't see what the big deal is, they're bad guys and he popped two of them already and doesn't feel bad at all. In a great scene between two officers, Chin Kar-lok reminds the rookie that they are bad guys, but also human beings.

Daniel Wu, as the hired killer, has not killed a man ever before when the movie begins. Whether he can avoid killing someone, and so save himself, or kill someone, and so be condemned, is the central tension of the movie. Given the nature of violence in ONE NIGHT IN MONGKOK, it becomes clear that, if he kills someone, he will lose everything.

In a time when once again it has become fashionable to demonize our enemies, to label one person as a "hero" and another as "evil," it comes as welcome respite to find a movie which treats everyone like human beings, nothing more or less. As Lai Fu says to his prostitute companion, "If you do something bad, and then keep doing it until it becomes a habit; that makes you a bad guy." The line between good and bad (or "evil") in ONE NIGHT IN MONGKOK is narrow, the difference between doing something bad and regretting it and doing something bad and not thinking much of it at all.

Alex Fong is great as the head of the police squad looking for the killer. Haunted by choices he made in the past, he more than any of the other officers wants to do everything possible to stop the hit from taking place. One gets the sense it isn't so much to prevent a crime from being committed, but to simply prevent one person from killing another, and by doing so, save both of them. Chin Kar-lok (who does double duty as the action choreographer as well) and Ken Wong also make the most of their characters, so that we see the police not just as a team, but as individuals (who nevertheless work well together despite their various personality differences).

Lam Suet has crafted his richest portrait of the "little man" types he has portrayed in so many Hong Kong movies, as Liu, a mainland immigrant who owns a cell phone shop with his wife and also contracts hit men for the mob. He has never been better, it is a performance worthy of recognition by the award shows.

There are some flaws in ONE NIGHT IN MONGKOK that make it something less than what it could have been. The first portion of the film, told in flashback, is also in black and white. By itself this is not such a bad thing, but it becomes clear from watching that Derek Yee is not familiar with the techniques required to make black and white cinematography look very interesting. The scenes look like they were shot using the standard lighting techniques of a color picture, and so just look washed out and bland, without sufficient contrast.

Choosing Daniel Wu and Cecilia Cheung to play desperate mainlanders is also problematic. They are among the most cosmopolitan types of the current crop of Hong Kong actors, and while both are accomplished, and do the best they can with the material here, nevertheless feel slightly out of place in their roles throughout the film. Especially when one considers that Hong Kong movie producers are falling all over themselves trying to get actual mainland actors into their movies to make it easier to sell them and promote them in the mainland market, it seems especially strange to cast these two in their roles. As a result, their characters are never entirely convincing, even though each scene is played well and feels emotionally true.

Another misfire are the informational titles that appear at the end of the film, describing how Hong Kong got its name, and a little information about Mongkok. Is this a tourist brochure or a movie? What were they thinking?

ONE NIGHT IN MONGKOK is an extremely accomplished, thoughtful film that is not as engaging as it should have been, but has studied moments of powerful drama, strong supporting performances, and carries a message about the use of violence in today's society, and is well recommended.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on January 16, 2005.


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