The subject of triads as a cinematic subject extends beyond the shores of Hong Kong, and in countries with Chinese population such as Singapore and Malaysia, you can bet your last dollar that there will be gangster-related characters in movies coming out of these countries. This year, Jack Neo featured money lending gangsters in his Ah Long Pte Ltd, and Boi Kwong directed the cautionary tale The Days. In Malaysia, there's this independently produced Emperor.
Being a first feature, it's natural that things looked raw and sometimes unpolished, often having a video-feel to it. I thought I noticed some very fleeting moments in continuity error as well and one scene which will induce a “huh?” moment involving a supposedly low-profile photographer in a car park. But it's quite a remarkable effort given that a feature film could be made with an extremely modest US$2000 cash, with the rest coming from the kindness of friends chipping in from everything like creating the soundtrack to acting. Even producer Adrian Lai had to roll up his sleeves and become one of the lead characters in the movie, Victor.
Directed by German Juliane Block, Emperor tells of the story of a Malaysian triad headed by Thomas Li the Dai Gor (Sam Yap), who has his trusted lieutenants in son Poh Sin aka self-proclaimed Emperor (Alfred Loh), Victor and his cousin Felix (Sean Yap) perform his dirty work. Naturally there is tension in the dynamics between the trio, and to heat things up, they face competition in the Snakehead business of human trafficking from the Hong Kong triads, as well as the murder of a girl in Germany which links the Interpol to one, or perhaps even more amongst the trio.
Don't expect plenty of gangland violence or cops-and-robbers shoot em ups, as the filmmakers and the storyline tried to keep it smart with the focus squarely on the more cerebral of tangles between the characters, becoming more of a whodunnit rather than an all out bar brawl. With enough red herrings, plenty of characters and their different motivations, and many narrative threads that threatened to either spiral out of control, or becoming quite unnecessary to bloat the runtime, satisfaction comes in the form of the finale where everything gets addressed, but also exposes that there is no such thing as an open and shut case, only of networks, relationships and compromise in all grey areas. The closest I can think of in a similar genre film that provided that kind of a lingering feeling after the end credits roll (with a coda at the end) was Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone.
The romance in the film somehow didn't ring through nicely, even though you appreciate what it's trying to get at – with the female character Sujata (Nina Sharil Khan) being the object of desire between the gangster Victor, and hot shot cop Inspector Ravi (Vicky Balasundran). Almost every race in multi-racial Malaysia get represented here, though this becomes a non-issue except that I think it forces every character here to converse in English – Bahasa would be possible too, but I guess having to screen this around the world would mean a practical nightmare of having to put plenty of subtitles. And similar to an English speaking Singapore movie, you'll probably need to get used to the way the characters express themselves in that language – they're proficient, but somehow always seem to sound a little alien.
While the acting might be found a little wanting, what made Emperor stand out is its rather intriguing storyline, though you have to grin and bear with the hydra of a convuluted development, before the satisfying payload gets delivered at the end.