A True Mob Story (1998)
Produced, written & directed by: Wong Jing
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Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1999:
Triad Dee (Andy Lau) in 1993 loses his wife in an accident related to a triad brawl he instigates. 5 years later he's released and suffers from trauma related to the loss while his son also shows tendencies towards being a fighter. With an assault charge now looming over his head, barrister Sandy (Gigi Leung - Full Throttle, A War Named Desire) recognizes Dee genuinely wants the best for his son and his surrogate mom Ruby (Suki Kwan - Cop On A Mission). Sandy oversteps boundaries to help Dee, including lying to her CID boyfriend (Alex Fong) but Dee still can't escape the triad world by just wanting so, especially not from Crazy Ball (Ben Ng - Red To Kill)
The latter half of the 1990s saw a resurgence in the triad genre, headlined by the box office success of Andrew Lau's Young And Dangerous series. Wong Jing was not late to cash in the trend, producing movies like Sexy And Dangerous and War Of The Underworld. By 1998, Andrew Lau had gone as far as making the prequel to Young And Dangerous (which Wong Jing was the executive producer on) and shortly thereafter, Wong had one of his unfortunately rare inspired ideas. While still maintaining the fact that he had the pulse on current trends, an actual serious triad movie entry came out of A True Mob Story. Andy Lau was cast in to automatically generate even more audiences but in all honesty, and the following is not something you willingly say about a Wong Jing production, the success came deserved.
Allegedly partially based on the life and exploits of real life triad Charles Heung (who now heads China Star Entertainment, latest production they having a hand in being Johnnie To's Election), Wong Jing almost constantly hovers between the initial surfaces of good and bad with his choices in A True Mob Story, only to come out as a winner within his own scale of filmmaking grading. The film probably appealed enough to movie goers due to many commercial elements such as the requisite triad stock characters, power struggles and bloody triad violence. Yet the priority of Wong's is character-drama.
Not character-drama infused with any light mood whatsoever but really the starting point isn't all that fresh (can a triad be redeemed after the first steps into criminal life?). It's potentially an after school special morality tale (the VCD factory sub-plot certainly screams that but manages to escape unscratched) but Wong has put in effort here to deliver the character of Dee in a clear, fairly complex and emotional way. Clearly not the poster boy for sympathy or great parenting but somewhere in there there lies a valid reason to escape the triad world. As many movies have shown, it's not that easy (actually impossible) but nonetheless, Dee's wants are humane and affecting. Clearly he has made and partially continues to make seemingly innocent choices that never guaranteed him an upwards spiral journey in life however, as the violence towards him is a symbolizes.
Wong Jing directs with some overbearing style (mostly created in post-production when working with editor Marco Mak) but has an understanding, together with cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung (PTU, Throw Down) that the straight, gritty and natural route is the way to go for A True Mob Story. Surprisingly low-key and deep in his storytelling, it isn't up to the class of the masters but for the genre, it is quite a great standout. There's questionable purposes for female characters in his screenplay though, especially Suki Kwan's Ruby who ultimately leans more towards being a rather simple image for Dee's future. Kwan is an affecting actress though and that constant threat of Wong's effort sinking never quite happens with this character either.
Gigi Leung equals the same thing in a way and becomes another factor in Dee's struggles towards clearing the triad world and into humanity. It's more of a challenging arc as written because the agenda of hers is clearly on the wrong side of correct morale but again, to connect the word complex with Wong Jing, even if only fairly, is intriguing and interest is maintained. Gigi doesn't quite showcase any superior strength or range but performs the words to a workable degree, much thanks to Wong's direction of his own script. Sam Lee and Frankie Ng lounge around in the background mostly, Mark Cheng is unusually terrifying (as opposed to usually terrible) and Ben Ng is hired to be the over the top, scarred villain. Definitely a menace but more of an surreal clown, it fitted more in Sexy And Dangerous, not here. Then again, Ng can be in his own way highly mesmerizing when performing this way.
Of course it's Andy Lau's central performance that also gets Wong Jing's noble attempts to a higher level than we're used to. Lau relies much on his natural charm, charisma and presence but is equally devoted to the arc of Dee. Never going overboard with emotions thankfully, the written plight comes to life nicely in Lau's hands, especially memorable since he juggles such contrasting moods, with the sympathy going back and forth. It's nice to see constant working forces such as Wong Jing and Andy Lau collaborate dramatically and achieve results.
Results are not what Wong Jing achieves these days in 2005 though. His recent cheap comedies such as Kung Fu Mahjong and its sequel have flopped quite badly. What he's missing is obviously stars but from my point of view, audiences doesn't want his stupid, silly comedy anymore. They may not want him doing serious drama either but I am definitely enough of a fan to want to see him progress by ditching the humour all together. A True Mob Story is a rare venture that proves Wong Jing has a knack for the dramatically written word and direction, when he wants to. Let's hope he soon reevaluates his strategy and looks back on the fine work on display in A True Mob Story to see what can be achieved next. Not Kung Fu Mahjong 3 I hope.
Mei Ah may have slowed down their remastered releases but A True Mob Story is a fine addition to the range. Presented in an anamorphically enhanced aspect ratio of 1.78:1, opening showcases heavy damage that soon clears up while colours and sharpness comes together in a good presentation.
The original Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 option presents little surround or front channel activity and in comparison to the 5.1 remix sounds slightly less in terms of quality. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix I dipped into on occasion and aside from some slightly over the top stereo separation, it seems like a restrained option to go with. A Cantonese DTS 5.1 track as well as a Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 dub is also included.
Some errors appear in the optional English subtitles but on the whole presents an easily followed translation. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
Special features includes the often useless Mei Ah Databank (containing an Chinese and English language synopsis and a very limited cast & crew listing), the trailer and an interview with Andy Lau (called Words From Andy Lau). Unfortunately this 5 minute, 15 second chat doesn't have any subtitles other than permanent Chinese ones. The movie clips that take up most of the time does however feature Chinese/English burned in subs.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
*thanks to dleedlee and LCanau for providing the Chinese title.