Mongkok Story (1996)

Directed by: Wilson Yip
Written by: Philip Kwok Wai Chung
Producer: Wong Siu Ming
Starring: Edmond Leung, Anthony Wong, Roy Cheung, Choi Hiu Yee & Michael Chan

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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 1997:
Best Screenplay (Philip Kwok Wai Chung)
Film Of Merit

In 1996, after two directed movies (one of them being the horror anthology 01:00 AM), Wilson Yip made his first big, acknowledged mark on Hong Kong cinema with Mongkok Story. The same year, the first three parts of the popular Young And Dangerous series was released and Yip must've already felt a sense of overkill in the triad genre. Therefore, he took on the challenge of distancing himself from it by toying with the conventions AND make something akin to a straight genre piece. Come to think of it, how could any movie could be considered straight when one character forces another to perform fellatio on him?'s Cat IIb by the way.

Leung Ping (Edmond Leung) is a restaurant waiter dreaming of a glorious life working for the triads. Frequent visitors to the restaurant are part of the Fook Sung gang and they finally invite Leung out on a club night. It ends with a violent confrontation with the Lo Fung gang but Leung's actions gets noticed by Brother Ching (Roy Cheung) who welcomes the newcomer into his gang. As times goes by, the rivalry between the two gangs escalate and Lo Fung's Leader, Brother Lone (Anthony Wong) ignites the conflict big time when he captures Leung Ping...

After Yip's Mongkok Story,other filmmakers also put together movies featuring triads as they really are, silly and even portrayed as people with low self esteem (who still act silly). Leung Ping, main character of Mongkok Story is a nice enough guy but one so in awe of the glorified triad lifestyle. Those lacking confidence see that easy route to become somebody and filmmakers have been criticized for portraying triad life as a valid lifestyle (bumping the rating up to Cat III usually is the punishment). I've seen few movies that follow a character with Leung Ping's traits, from his initiation to him being more deeply involved in the triad life. Yip doesn't make it a very special character portrayal and judging from the plot synopsis, little here is at it's core very different from a genre piece. What makes Mongkok Story more interesting is an offbeat script and Wilson Yip's peculiar touches to the directing.

If Yip wanted to do a Young And Dangerous movie, he would've directed one. Here he accomplishes pretty well the balance of giving the audiences quirky touches or unexpected narrative moments while still giving us what's expected from a movie like this. He does have a sly sense of humour about it all though. A few frames into the film we're lead into an overly stylized, violent scene, mainly because it's an exaggerated view of a second party, but it's very clear that Yip is presenting a genre convention while still saying that you shouldn't take this kind of filmmaking so serious by part 3, 4 or 5. Other filmmakers does go in with a straight face though over and over, making way for satires or parodies of it in the process.

Screenwriter Philip Kwok Wai Chung presents a gallery of stock characters, starting with the horribly dressed young punks that dare to call themselves triads. Yet he makes that point, from Leung Ping's perspective, that these guys are the coolest ever and no one in the film takes the time to look at their pathetic selves from the outside. To further add to that , rivalry between gangs is so weakly motivated, represented in an early scene at a nightclub and a funny one where our characters happen to catch a cab driven by a member of the Lo Fung gang they're fleeing from. As I said, on a basic level story wise, Mongkok Story is no different and if Yip put full focus on the Leung Ping character in the first half, he takes many steps back from him in the second. Yes, there's not much weight to the journey (joins the triads, seduced by the life, faces conflict, hopefully learns something in the process about himself, The End) but when introducing Brother Lone, played by Anthony Wong, Edmond Leung's character stops dead almost. It has that disadvantage but the advantage is that now the conflict between Ching and Lone gets taken to new, funny, bizarre levels. The movie is a bit slow-paced up until Tony's arrival and his character certainly adds a huge splash of colour to the film. A b-movie actor/bisexual triad heavy, the way he starts this conflict certainly is unique (look back on the first paragraph) and the movie flows much better thanks to this...umm...original narrative touch by the filmmakers. As a side note I just have to mention that Lone's introduction (seen as a movie in the movie) is a cool homage to El Mariachi.

It's in the last 30 minutes that director Wilson Yip displays the finest touches in this very early effort from him. Earlier we've seen a sample of the distinct slow motion way of shooting a triad brawl and tension is akin to that in Bullets Over Summer when we approaches the second later in the film. Now we have a thoroughly insane back story to it and it becomes much more fun to follow because of it. Action directors Poon Kwin Gam & Mak Fei Hung also makes the big brawl scene here very worthwhile and manages to make Roy Cheung in particular look terrific doing this kind of action. Tommy Wai has put together an interesting score, mainly consisting of Latin inspired music, something that has been heard in other movies of this kind (Metade Fumaca for example). I don't know what it means to him or Yip but it somehow works for this not so Latino flavored atmosphere.

A definite problem with Mongkok Story is the lead actor Edmond Leung. He's not bad and has the held back, shy way about him that suits the character. It's consciously directed that no matter how much toughness is in him, the gentle or scared side can't be hidden. Edmond passes but to carry the movie is a different story. That he has not the skill to do so maybe it was a conscious decision to steer attention away from him and let the veterans shine, starting with Roy Cheung. Very much known for his bad guy turns in Ringo Lam's films (what a downright bastard he was in School On Fire!), Roy finally found meatier roles during the later half of the 90s and while this is a character that has been seen before, Roy nicely brings out Ching's more everyday man traits. He sure has the triad ways about him but not necessarily the brutal ones UNLESS necessary. Beast Cops however gave him a better chance to portray a fleshed out triad boss and Roy has increasingly improved on his versatility over the years.

Anthony Wong. Yes, it's a performance in a film with flaws but I honestly have to say that this is one of Anthony's under appreciated roles. Lone is one hilarious and detestable human being. For example, after killing off a character in cold blood, he immediately asks for the nearest bathroom and his behaviour at funeral is Tony at his sleaziest best. It's such a wild character, one of my favourites from Anthony. Director Wilson Yip appears a briefly as a cameraman, shooting what looks like a very low-grade Cat III film with Anthony's character. A nod to Anthony's roles of that kind in the past? You bet.

When Yip closes the film, he not only again confuses the audience a bit in the final scene, but decently completes a modest character journey and has filled his generic triad plot with memorable aspects. Where else are you going to see a lighthearted soccer game between thugs and the putting together of a baby crib by these seemingly tough triads? That alone makes Mongkok Story an interesting take on the genre but clearly is a work of a young director in development. Fans of his later efforts will certainly want to experience the creative beginnings of one of Hong Kong's most talented young directors. What's his obsession with Coca-Cola about though?

The DVD:

Universe brings Wilson Yip's film to dvd finally but didn't bother to strike a new print, leaving us with a direct port from, what I assume is, the Laserdisc. The 1.85:1 transfer is fairly clean but soft throughout and muted in terms of colours. Scenes towards the end are very dark as well. This is only a few notches better than the vcd but only a few. Thank god Hong Kong imports are cheap but it's shameful to call something like this a dvd.

The Cantonese 2.0 mono track sounds as it should. Pretty flat but music and dialogue comes through in a decent manner. A Mandarin 2.0 dub is also included.

Subtitles are the original burned in Chinese/English ones. They feature little spelling errors but a number of strange translations. They become a bit faded at times and one scene briefly makes the subtitles unreadable (white on white). I've seen worse and there are a few hilariously subtitled lines from Anthony's character in this film.

There are no extras included.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson