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A Mob Story
Chinese: 人在江湖
Cheung Tat-Ming and Julian Cheung
  Year: 2007  
  Director: Herman Yau Lai-To  
  Producer: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung  
  Writer: Peter Lam Chun-Yue  
  Cast: Julian Cheung Chi-Lam, Cheung Tat-Ming, Yin Shin, Mandy Chiang Nga-Man, Hugo Ng Doi-Yung, Raymond Wong Ho-Yin, Johnny Chen (Lu Sze-Ming), Fung Hak-On, Tina Chou, Lisa S  
  The Skinny: Interesting, though hardly groundbreaking exploration of Hong Kong gangster themes from director Herman Yau. The film isn't especially noteworthy, but there's enough thought and deadpan wit here to make it better than your usual direct-to-video fare.  
 
Review
by Kozo:

Herman Yau helms another foray into the triad genre with A Mob Story. Produced by Andrew Lau of Infernal Affairs fame, the film received its premiere at the 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival before going straight to video. The Cantonese title of the film literally means, "Person in Jiang Hu", highlighting the philosophical gist of the film. This is a movie about man's existence in the underworld, but unlike the popular image of brotherhood and honor among gangsters, we get this solemn lesson: being in the underworld is crap. This is a film that basically tells us that if you're in the underworld, you'll be stabbed in the back, your friends will turn on you for the smallest of reasons, and brotherhood means jack. Women are also bad news, and revenge isn't just empty, it's stupid. The best thing about the underworld? Usually everyone else is so busy fighting amongst themselves that you can go unnoticed. That is, until someone remembers that they hate you, after which they come gunning for you with a pronounced selfish glee. Strangely, the above description also sounds like real life.

Julian Cheung stars as Seven, a legendary assassin who returns to the game by offing a series of triad bosses. His latest job involves taking down a beer girl (Mandy Chiang) who's supposed to be a massive jinx on her boyfriends. However, her current squeeze Fatt (Hugo Ng) is a sleazy crime boss who just so happens to be the same guy who killed Seven's father back when Seven's father was a crime boss. You see, in the world of A Mob Story, the method of career advancement seems to be that you conspire to kill your own boss, whereupon you usurp their position and everyone gets in line to follow you - that is, until it's your turn to get stabbed in the back. Rinse, repeat, etc. The majority of the mob bosses in A Mob Story encounter violence and/or death thanks to the work of their supposed loyal underlings. You'd think that if the betrayal rate were this high, people would simply wise up and not become bosses. Oddly, nobody seems to note this occupational hazard and lines up to be a backstabbing victim anyway.

Seven ends up botching the hit and befriending the beer girl, after which the film gets a massive location shift. Thanks to pissing off Fatt's men, Seven hightails it to Taiwan to go into hiding. Once there, he enlists the services of a betelnut girl named Chi-Ling (Yin Shin) for a minor striptease in the back of the betelnut shop. The break is good for some onscreen female flesh, but Seven's real reason for showing up at the betelnut shop isn't for the lapdance, it's to find old pal Goblin (Cheung Tat-Ming), who once upon a time was Seven's buddy back in Hong Kong. The two quickly rekindle their friendship, but Goblin has issues, namely a raging attraction to Chi-Ling plus a massive debt to a wacky Taiwanese gang boss. To pay back his debt, Goblin is assigned to kill a rival mob boss, but Goblin also wants Chi-Ling's freedom in the bargain. He gets his request, and with that extra carrot dangled in front of him, Goblin no longer adheres to any idea of honor or brotherhood. Cue brother vs. brother squabbles and the laughable idea that Cheung Tat-Ming may actually be able to take out Julian Cheung in a fair fight.

But this is the world of A Mob Story, meaning nobody gives a crap if a fight is fair or not. And even if Goblin gets Chi-Ling's freedom, so what? Just because she's freed doesn't mean she'll go running into Goblin's arms. She seems to be much more enamored of Seven anyway, dissing Goblin verbally, and acting like a Grade-A tease in front of Seven's vaguely disinterested mug. Despite being the most sensible person in the film, Seven joins the list of people who act stupidly by not telling Goblin about Chi-Ling's obvious duplicity. Goblin's possessiveness of Chi-Ling's nubile form continues to grow in leaps and bounds, while Seven weakly protests about his buddy's choice of girls. For a tough hitman, Seven is remarkably passive, and only seems to spring into action when somebody is looking to put a knife in his back. Julian Cheung glowers effectively as Seven, but he doesn't give the character enough energy or charisma to make him that engaging. Cheung Tat Ming is more effective as the pathetic Goblin, and gives the character an appropriate rodent-like quality. Newcomer Yin Shin has a refreshingly sexy presence as Chi-Ling, though her character isn't fleshed out that much.

The lack of explication seems to be a problem with the whole film, as the themes are kind of thrown out there into one big mob film melee, where a million clichés are acknowledged or debunked, but nothing really sticks. The film effectively drives home its most prevalent theme, that the mob life is virtually guaranteed to disappoint anyone with a shred of righteousness. People generally lie, cheat, steal, and barter with objects that don't belong to them. A bad life means a bad fate, and even the characters that triumph will likely one day get theirs. However, other themes and story ideas are more muddled; large weight is given to the Mandy Chiang subplot, but it's not clear where the filmmakers are headed with it. One problem is the film seems to sell her as a major character, only to completely drop her when the film shifts to Taiwan. She eventually reenters the picture, but her connection to Seven just seems serendipitous, and not a reflection of any greater intent from the filmmakers. Considering the killings and character connections, there sometimes seems to be larger overarching theme or story at work. However, the connections don't really lead anywhere, except to have characters show up later to kill or be killed. It's all rather intriguing, but sometimes seems aimless.

Still, A Mob Story's offbeat details, dark tone and casual nihilism are effective. Some of the film's jiang hu discussion is muddled and inconclusive, but at other times, the film displays a satisfying dark wit. One mob boss casually tortures people while a little girl plays hopscotch nearby, and people are violently attacked and killed with almost banal regularity. The attacks hurt too; A Mob Story has violence to spare, resulting in severed heads, chopped off fingers, slashed throats, a knife to the groin, and a few dozen whacks to the head with a brick. Yau serves up the violence in appreciably brutal style, and does his best to work with his HD-video image. Unlike Billy Chung, director of the similarly produced Undercover (both films were produced by Andrew Lau as a part of his Fortune Star HD-video project), Yau uses various techniques to make sure the video image doesn't distract. The effort helps; casual viewers may not notice or care that this is a shot-on-video feature.

However, casual viewers may not care, period. A Mob Story isn't the most crowd-pleasing motion picture, as it seldom does anything seductive with its dark material. Despite Yau's efforts at making this a non-video experience, A Mob Story doesn't possess much cinematic verve, and is weighed down by its unfocused screenplay and sometimes shoddy acting. However, more discerning viewers may enjoy the dark wit and the odd details. Yau packs the film with random ideas and characters, like a mahjong player lacking a limb, or an encounter with a is-he-dead-or-not crime boss. The oddities give the film a color and dimension not seen in more straightforward films, and help make it more than just another Hong Kong gangster film. On the whole, A Mob Story is a nice little surprise, and manages to be much more effective than similar films of its low-budget ilk. The film may not add up to all that much, but given Hong Kong Cinema's recent lack of quality output, A Mob Story is easily better than what we usually get. (Kozo 2007)

 
 

Availability:

DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Joy Sales
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various extras
 

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