Director: Derek Yee Tung-Shing
Cast: Daniel Wu (吳彥祖), Cecilia Cheung (張柏芝), Alex Fong (方中信), Anson Leung (梁俊一), Chin Kar Lok (錢嘉樂), Lam Suet (林雪), Sam Lee (李璨琛)
Gritty, dark, and violent, Derek Yee’s One Nite in Mongkok has more in common with Johnnie To’s Election films than popular heroic bloodshed gangster movies or slick commercial vehicles such as Infernal Affairs. The story that violence can erupt from the smallest of events is a potent one, and the overall theme of the inevitability of conflict in society is subtly laid out in the film’s closing sequence. Anchored by fine performances from the leading actors (and especially Alex Fong) and a tight script, One Nite in Mongkok was a bright spot in Hong Kong cinema in 2004 and one of the most engaging triad films to ever emerge from the industry.
Competing counterfeit watch sellers (rather low soldiers on the triad scale) provide the catalyst for the film’s events, proving that small conflicts can escalate to full-scale war. When their tussle on the crowded streets of Mongkok eventually leads to the death of a triad boss’ son, revenge is a given. Enter Lai Fu (Daniel Wu), a hitman from China hired by the grieving family to assassinate the head of the gang whose son (Sam Lee) was responsible for the death. Anticipating total gang war, Officer Milo (Alex Fong) places his team on high alert. Members of his team include his reliable partner Brandon (Chin Kar Lok) and rookie hotshot Ben (Anson Leung), a young officer new to Milo’s team who tends to rely more on his firearm than any sort of common sense. When they get word of Lai Fu’s participation in all of this, the film becomes a tense manhunt in one of the most densely populated areas on the face of the Earth. Elsewhere, while trying to lay low in a dingy apartment, Lai Fu intervenes when a vicious triad is kicking around Dan Dan (Cecilia Cheung), a mainland prostitutes, giving the triad the perfect excuse for reconstructive facial surgery. Dan Dan takes a liking to Lai Fu, claiming it’s because they come from neighboring villages, but she’s initially more interested in the oodles of cash he carries with him until she learns of his true intentions.
I think that what drew me into the film as I was watching it is how the opening event, that small scuffle between counterfeit watch sellers, affects the lives of so many individuals. This is not an episodic, multi-threaded, Hallmark-esque film like Crash where the characters may or may not have any knowledge of each other’s existence. Rather, the event is the catalyst that sets these characters in motion against one another and allows them to develop in this very defined space, making it a unique Hong Kong text in which coincidence and circumstance play significant roles. Lai Fu is not the hitman with a heart of gold, as his underlying motive for taking the assignment in the first place is to find and bring back his woman. Yet, his vicious side certainly appears when anything or anyone threatens to keep him from doing what he came to Hong Kong to do. Dan Dan, like so many other individuals from China, came to Hong Kong to make money. It would be very hard for her to leave given her occupation and illicit connections, but the arrival of Lai Fu disrupts and completely alters her predicament and makes her the target of some very pissed off triads. Meanwhile, Milo is hell bent on finding Lai Fu before he can carry out his mission, much to the detriment of his marriage. He’s a dedicated officer with a reliable team, but the inclusion of a trigger-happy rookie threatens his desire for nonviolent confrontations. When you throw all these characters in the mix, the result is a very tense night in Mongkok, and an exceptional film that feels grounded without pandering or being overly gimmicky.
Naturally, with the name Mongkok in the title, you know that Hong Kong’s heavily populated district is going to play a major role in the film, and Derek Yee and crew use it to great effect. In contrast to Johnnie To’s film PTU, which chronicles a night’s events in a dark, empty Hong Kong punctuated only by street lights, One Nite in Mongkok utilizes a bustling, fully awake city filled with huge crowds of people and neon sign-lit locales. As Milo and Brandon share a conversation at one point in the film, Milo says that the person you want to find is nowhere to be found, while the person you don’t want to find routinely turns up like a bad penny. In light of the complexity of Mongkok and its dense population, Milo’s fear takes on greater meaning, as does his belief that finding the wrong person is the result of sin. Take a look here to get a sense of the streets of Mongkok:
Of coure all of the above would not mean much if the performances are not up to the task. Thankfully, Yee gets the most out of his actors in ways that provide each of their characters with a great amount of depth. Model-turned-actor Daniel Wu continually impresses with each movie, whether he is behind or in front of the camera. Intense and driven, his Lai Fu is a very grounded individual (as opposed to the self-assured superhero hitman) just trying to make it through the night. In what could’ve been a very generic role, Cecilia Cheung gives her character more of a meaningful presence. Dan Dan is essentially trapped in Hong Kong with the realization that she may have to turn tricks until she’s used up and passed on. So naturally, she’s opportunistic when a good-looking guy with a ton of cash enters her life. However, the connection that she feels to Lai Fu is genuine, and once Cheung turns off her character’s faux charm, she creates a complete character who heartbreakingly closes the film with an almost direct address to us, the audience. Both Wu and Cheung are excellent in the film, but it is Alex Fong as Officer Milo who commands it all. Fong is always a reliable character actor, but he really creates something special here. Through him, Milo transcends the typical veteran cop. Dedicated, yes, but he’s without that bright-eyed sense of excitement and enthusiasm he no doubt had as a rookie, because as the film shows, being a police officer is a dangerous, demanding, and occasionally depressing job. So he plays things by the book, determined to keep himself and his team alive with each assignment as his family life crumbles around him. It’s a fantastic performance, and the perfect way to conclude this review of one of Hong Kong’s very best films. Highly recommended!