Director Herman Yau spins gold - or maybe solidly-polished brass - out of dingy old thread in the unheralded drama Cocktail. Co-directed by Longisland So(?), and written by Cheung Pan, Cocktail takes B or C-level stars, an uninspiring premise, and and manages to find some semblance of actual emotion. The situations themselves aren't that exciting, and the emotions themselves are so expected as to be hackneyed. Yet somehow, the movie is watchable. Herman Yau, we salute you.
Candy (Candy Lo) is the owner of a pub called "Half-Mortal" in the subtitles, though the actual bar sign reads "Heaven and Hell". Candy runs the pub with two helpers, sweetheart college student Stella (Race Wong), and high-school dropout Paul (singer Endy Chow). Paul is the new recruit to Half-Mortal, and chose the life due to his pop (Lawrence Cheng), who sucked down liquor like there was no tomorrow. Paul thinks that working in a bar will somehow bring him closer to his pop, so he enlists after reading a couple of books, and is soon slinging shots to the bar's regular patrons. Stella teaches him the ropes, and the two soon develop some puppy love for one another. Instead of reading her two lovebird employees the riot act, Candy lets them flirt on the job while she chain-smokes and acts depressed.
Meanwhile, a whole cast of characters wander in and out of the bar, including a "Master of the Universe" car salesman (Johnson Lee) and his personal assistant (Derek Tsang), who neglects his girlfriend (Bobo Chan) to satisfy his boss. An emotionally-afflicted bar groupie (Chloe Chiu) develops an attachment to Paul, sending Stella into a jealous tizzy. Candy's old flame (or is he?) Vincent (Eric Kot) stops by for the occasional drink, and various other characters come and go, some played by the seminal (not) HK band E02. Paul finds himself the subject of attention thanks to his quickly burgeoning bar skills. Will he come to understand his father? Will he go Tom Cruise and become the bartender/poet toast of the town? Will he and the increasingly adorable Stella get past their youthful pride and get together? Will it be revealed why Candy is such a manic depressive mess? And are the perils of occasionally irresponsible drinking really worth 90 minutes of moviegoing?
The answer: maybe. Cocktail doesn't bring closure to the majority of its subplots, and seems to be mainly concerned with the story of Paul and his dad. To the film's credit, it makes that hackneyed cinema motivation a reasonably affecting one - even though the lessons learned are right out of your standard afterschool special. Newcomer Endy Chow does a decent job as the young, occasionally misguided Paul, while Candy Lo - who now qualifies as a veteran Hong Kong Cinema presence - makes a charismatic unhappy bar owner. 2R's Race Wong is the film's anointed celluloid sweetheart, and brings enough toothy prettiness to the screen to make her puppy love with Endy Chow seem reasonably felt. Herman Yau gets enough from his performers to make their lives interesting, which is great, because the actual material in Cocktail is nothing new or crucial. The bar Half-Mortal is your basic joint where each visitor's issues reveal some barely-developed facet of modern urban life. What it all means is questionable, but these people go about their routine and sometimes self-deluded lives with admirable resilience. People break up and make up, jerks stay jerks, and only one or two people actually move beyond their basic issues. Hey, it's just like life!
Or a jazzy, calculated celluloid version of life. Cocktail is a decent ride of familiar human emotions, and maximizes its major location and familiar material with unobtrusive low-tech cinema panache. Cocktail manages to be watchable for the majority of its running time, though when it's over, it almost seems like an also-ran exercise in faux-independent commercial filmmaking. The low budget look, oddly incongruous soundtrack, and abundance of existentialism makes the film seem substantial, but the routine Cantopop montages, overused conflicts, commercial emotions, and sometimes empty filmmaking flash reveal the film to be little more than your standard youth drama dressed up in grungy clothing. With a lesser director, Cocktail would have been trash, but in the hands of Herman Yau (and Longisland So, too) it's actually okay stuff. Yau's gift seems to be wringing effective emotions out of uneven movies that look worse than they really are. Cocktail fits that complicated definition well. (Kozo 2006)