Review: TO LIVE AND DIE IN MONGKOK 旺角監獄 (2009) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Review: TO LIVE AND DIE IN MONGKOK 旺角監獄 (2009)


Review: TO LIVE AND DIE IN MONGKOK 旺角監獄 (2009)

After spending 29 years in prison for slaughtering a rival gang, Fai (Nick Cheung) returns to the same place he grew up at -- Mongkok. But life in Mongkok is no longer the same place he once knew since everything has changed over the years. His former buddy, Porky (Willie Wai) is due for promotion to the head of the triad, and he is currently facing stiff competition from a slick rival named Peter (Patrick Tam). The old-timers in the triad society are urging Porky to make use of Fai to support him for the upcoming promotion, but instead, he sends a couple of lackeys, Kid (Juno Leung) and Ken (Samuel Leung) to take good care of Fai -- namely lavish dinner and some spa time. In the meantime, Porky rather wastes time pursuing mainland prostitute Pamela (Monica Mok) and especially her mentally-challenged sister Penny (Natalie Meng) for sexual conquest. On the other side of the story, Fai is no longer the same fearless younger self he once was. Over the years in the prison, he has developed a severe case of multiple personalities disorder. Sometimes he's a gentle and kind person, and other time he turns into his former raging personality, who he sees an imaginary buddy which goes by the name of Fai Jr. (Tang Tak-Po). From a common point-of-view, it looks like Fai is talking to himself but that doesn't prevent the gang from trying to exploit his legendary hero status. But Fai doesn't really want to go back to the same path he once at, and instead he's more eager to reconnect with his mother, Charity (Bau Hei-Jing) who is suffering from dementia. Rounding up the complication is the temperamental cop Gunner (Liu Kai-Chi), who once responsible for Fai's imprisonment for putting a bullet in his back.


REVIEW: Looking at the promo poster that boldly displayed the self-declared "Wong Jing's first cult film", one might question whether his latest movie, TO LIVE AND DIE IN MONGKOK, actually lives up to its promise. After all, nobody goes on to make a movie and immediately a cult status since that kind of appreciation is achievable by critics and viewers over the course of time. Whatever gimmick he's trying to pursue here, the result is ambitious but the lack of central focus to make this would-be cult movie a worthy masterpiece.

No doubt there's a strong narrative point lies within this potentially ambitious movie. It's especially evident when Wong Jing, who also penned the screenplay, manages to shed some fresh angle into this otherwise formulaic triad genre -- by adding a central character with multiple personalities disorders. That's not all, Wong Jing's intriguing metaphor centres on Fai "trapped within the confine of Mongkok" does offers some layered psychological insight while Wong's juicy dialogue is often colourful, quirky and at the same time, clever. One such notion is where Fai questions the downfall of Hong Kong movies between the past and the present as a referential pop-culture point for his culture shock it almost feels as if Wong Jing manages to ape some brilliant point out of Edmond Pang's filmmaking style.

It's all sound goods, at least on paper, but the end product doesn't exactly translate well on the screen. At the hand of Wong Jing's and his co-director, Billy Chung's direction, the movie is sadly a mixed bag. Perhaps it's evident that Wong and Billy don't have the calibre of, say Johnnie To or perhaps Herman Yau for that matter, to successfully mix genre that borderlines between quirky and provocative manner. Maybe they should take note of how effortless Johnnie To once did in MAD DETECTIVE (2007), except with a cop angle. As for TO LIVE AND DIE IN MONGKOK, the movie is quite a bloated mess, especially all the annoying fact of Wong and Billy has mistaken for grainy, color-tainted images, handheld cam, rapid-editing antics and other stylistic excesses as a genre movie with a quirky twist. Most of the time, the movie looks distracting while Li Kar-Wing's haphazard editing, especially during the fight scene, is a total letdown. And that potential "trapped within the confine of Mongkok" undertones is also sadly undermined by Wong's unexpected detour by presenting it in a cheesy way. It's also hard to take it seriously to see Fai daydream about an imaginary guard (Roderick Lam) and the fake-looking CGI fence that prevent him from walking down Nathan Road to a neighbouring district.

Given the vast potential of a line of award-winning actors rounding up in this movie, it's a pity that none of them are particular standouts. No thanks to Wong and Billy's insensible direction to guide their actors toward better characterization, what's left are only mere surface struggling somewhere for subtlety. Fresh off from winning his much-deserved Best Actor award for last year's THE BEAST STALKER, Nick Cheung gets a potentially meaty role as the schizophrenic Fai that could have earned him another acting nod. Too bad he spends most of the time looking either lost or dopey, though there are moments he did flesh out some credible acting in the process. The rest of the supporting actors, including Liu Kai-Chi and Patrick Tam, are anything but typical performances we have seen them countless times before. Still, there are some overall worthy performances from some of the actors here: Monica Mok and (surprisingly) Natalie Meng are fine, while Bau Hei-Jing makes the most impression as Fai's suffering mother.

TO LIVE AND DIE IN MONGKOK is far from the so-called "cult status" the movie tries to achieve here. On the other side, it's not a bad one either except that it would be nice if this movie falls under the hand of a better filmmaker. And that would be an entirely different story.

Wong Jing's TO LIVE AND DIE IN MONGKOK is ambitious but half-hearted triad drama that fails to make good use of the multiple personalities disorders subject matter.

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