Like a Boss
Whatever it is, the opening film of ScreenSingapore's second edition turned out to be more respectable than the farce in its inaugural edition. It's a World Premiere, has a renowned (infamous too maybe?) director in Wong Jing, produced by another Hong Kong luminary in Andrew Lau, is funded by the Bona Group in which Yu Dong sits on the board of the screen event, and stars arguably the largest Chinese star in Chow Yun Fat, himself the son-in-law of this little island. It's a blockbuster however way you see it, if only the story had a better and stronger focus than to fire off like a shotgun from afar with hopes of hitting multiple targets.
It's an expansive tale of love, war, and one man's ascension to the apex of a power struggle between his countrymen, the army, and the Japanese over a period of almost forty years in Shanghai from the early 20th century to the middle of WWII. It has ambition to want to tell a Godfather like story set not amongst the mafia, but amongst the triads, made up of respectable folks at the helm, or so it seems. Herein likes the problem with a weak script, that it threw in a lot of ideas, thematic elements and story sub-arcs, but in doing so just presented the dots, hardly making any effort to connect them coherently since most of the meat got left out. Things get presented as is, with key scenes being representative of time, and a character's consolidation of and grip on power skimmed through when that would've been the crux. Don't forget too about the anti-hero's background here, which means with an eye for the Chinese market, you'll just about know which path it would head toward for an acceptable ending, to comply with draconian, moralistic requirements.
The draw of the film is undoubtedly Wong Jing having Chow Yun Fat as his main star, as one of my favourite films early on, is their God of Gamblers where they created magic, which sparked off a slew of copycats from various territories keen to milk the formula dry. Unfortunately, The Last Tycoon is itself a derivation from Wong Jing himself, taking a leaf out of the textbook used by directing peers such as John Woo, Wilson Yip, and even Wong Kar-Wai, which he probably didn't shy about wanting to emulate the classy director, since Wong Jing's filmography has its fair share of sleaze, and needed respectable works to provide that counter-balance. Some may even remember the director's deprecating self-introduction from last year's ScreenSingapore.
So stylistically, we get action shoot-em ups just as how John Woo would have done them in operatic, ballet style, in a church no less, with bullets in cartridges that never seem to run out. In fact the finale could really pass off as The Killer sequel with Chow decked in all-white looking to rescue his lady love. As for a Wilson Yip inspired segment, how about the scene involving Huang Xiaoming's street brawl amongst scores of gangsters, topped with Sammo Hong's more solid introduction compared to a fleeting one early in the film, looked very much like Ip Man 2, with Sammo breaking up the fights, and even looking as if he's recycled his costume from that film. And the biggest homage paid by Wong Jing to Wong Kar-wai can be found here, with the former giving a treat to the latter's fans since The Grandmasters got postponed again. We get to see fights in slow motion, in the rain, of an exponent against tens of others, just the way that it would have been filmed in the movie that's yet to be released. And on the dramatic, emotional front, romance is full of deliberation, unrequited love, and if you were to push it some more, even the parting shot could very much fit into In The Mood For Love.
You may think I'm digressing, but that was how this film felt at different points in its rather plodding 110 minutes. It didn't have a key focus, and was pretty wishy-washy, be it in its development of the romantic relationships between its key characters, or to determine just what or who would be the primary adversary, before dragging Francis Ng's Mao Zai, a soldier who would eventually turn general then turncoat, as its last ditch effort to allow audiences to collectively hiss at the character, since there really wasn't anyone else throughout most of the film to feature any equivalent menace the way Francis Ng can deliver.
Rian Johnson's science fiction time travelling movie had both Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt play the same character at different ages gracing the same frame of the film together. Here, Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming doppelgangers as Chow Yun Fat's younger self for the character of Cheng Daqi, which in some ways thanks to shrewd camera angles, really made him convincingly similar in chiselled looks, before Huang's mimicry gets full marks for ably capturing most, if not all, of Chow's usual mannerisms on screen. Daqi becomes the top gangster in Shanghai in just slightly over an hour, having become the apprentice to Sammo Hung's Hong Shouting, a top cop in the French Concession part of Shanghai, and also its chief gangster. And having taken the young Daqi under his wing, it's a preaching of some never-bite-the-hands-that-feed-you principle and value system that Hong imparts to his fledgling, which continues until Chow Yun Fat took over the role.
It would have been a tad more interesting had Daqi been more ambiguous, than to stake his loyalty out there in the open, becoming an inevitable crutch that enemies can exploit. His rise to infamy and power were also left largely to your own devices and imagination, because nothing was presented other than the cooler than cool shot of Huang/Chow sitting on a chair and having hundreds of extras bowing down in reverence. I would have thought what the man had stood for would be as equally important as showing him to be a deadly shot with a penchant for bullets to the head, or demonstrating his gift of the gab in negotiating tricky win-win deals with any potential adversary.
And don't get me started on his romantic dalliances, where his childhood sweetheart Ye Zhiqiu (Joyce Feng, before Yolanda Yuan took over as the older version) and him go their separate ways, with her pursuing an opera dream in Beijing, before their lives converge in Shanghai, and even then, didn't have any spark to begin, or end with. The writers expanded this part of the tale having her married to an underground rebel who is in possession of the rebel manifest that got quickly forgotten, as if one entire chunk of story got written out on a whim, including relegating said husband to needless involvement. Supporting characters started to swell, such as Daqi's wife (played by Monica Mok), his enforcer type henchmen Lin Huai (Gao Hu) who is extremely skilled with the butterfly knife, and his master's wife (Yuan Li) who dispenses well heeled advice, seeing red when Hong Shouting has eyes for a younger women instead.
Don't get me wrong though that I hated the film, but it was frustrating knowing Wong Jing could have done even better here, in what I felt was certainly one of his better works of late, especially with its lush production values, and star power. The triumvirate of Chow Yun Fat, Sammo Hung and Francis Ng, though short in terms of sharing the same frame, really ought to up the ante and stakes in the poker game their characters play during dangerous times when they should be focused on external threats. The master-apprentice relationship between Shouting and Daqi could have been given additional focus, especially when it transformed to a sworn brotherhood, as is the theme dwelled on the influencers in one's life that shapes it in time to come. The jibes at authority also couldn't go unnoticed, especially against the corrupt and the disloyal, but that too got nothing more than cursory scenes. The deep irony, is that the successful gangsters here abide by values and life defining principles, compared to those in uniform who fail to do what they were supposed to.
Then again, The Last Tycoon probably should be treated as entertainment rather than to take it too seriously despite its subject matter. After all, at the helm is one of Hong Kong's most prolific directors, for films that pander to masses. This one is certainly assembled to score largest at the box office to come. The Last Tycoon opens in Singapore, and the rest of the world, by end of the year / early in Jan 2013.