These days, given the amount of cinematic fluff that comes out of Hong Kong, you’re doing pretty well if an HK movie leaves you feeling only vaguely disappointed. Which is why One Nite in Mongkok was such an absolute thrill to watch. Already, the film is garnering all sorts of accolades, and it’s so easy to see why. Pound for pound, One Nite in Mongkok might be the best HK movie I’ve seen since Infernal Affairs.
On the surface, it’s your basic noir-ish police thriller. The sons of two rival gangleaders, Tim and Carl, have been feuding over territory, leaving Tim’s son dead in the aftermath. Tim, being the gangster that he is, immediately places a hit on Carl, bringing in a hitman from mainland China with the help of Liu (Lam Suet, in yet another sketchy role). Which will obviously lead to an even nastier bout of gang warfare. And making things even worse, this is all happening in Mongkok, one of the most densely-populated areas in the world. If anything goes wrong, if Carl gets killed, all hell will break loose.
At this point, the movie diverges into two storylines. The first follows the cops as they try to track down the hired mainland killer. Led by the veteran Milo (Alex Fong, an an amazingly subdued and affecting performance), they hassle and rough up any perp, informant, and pimp who might help them crack the case. The second follows the hitman, a young and naïve villager named Lai Fu (Daniel Wu), as he makes his way through Hong Kong, preparing for his first (and likely last) job. He quickly realizes that everyone is against him. The cops are on his trail, and his one contact, Liu, could really care less about him so long as he gets the job done.
When he’s spooked by the cops, Lai Fu goes on the run, meeting up with Dan Dan (Cecilia Cheung), a mainland girl who comes over to Hong Kong to earn money as a prostitute. After he saves her from an abusive client, the two of them head out into Hong Kong awaiting the call for Liu to kill Carl.
Describing this movie as a “cat and mouse” type scenario would be accurate, but would end up doing a great disservice to the film. For one thing, it’s not your simple genre exercise. Considerable time is spent developing and building up the characters, especially Lai Fu and Dan Dan. As a result, the loyalties of the viewer constantly shift between the parallel storylines, between the harried, desperate cops and the fearful mainlanders trying to stay one step ahead of ruin.
Thankfully, writer/director Derek Yee (whose previous film was the wonderful Lost In Time), doesn’t resort to straight up melodrama to try and get his story across. And while the plot does contain a number of HK cinema conventions (i.e. hitmen and the like), it rises above mere stereotype.
Although Lai Fu may be a hitman, we learn that his real motive for coming to Hong Kong is to track down his fiancé Sue, who has come over from the mainland to care for her grandmother (and has possibly become a hooker herself). He’s not a cold-blooded killer at all, but actually quite noble. He constantly looks out for Dan Dan, his naïveté contrasting with the corruption she’s experienced since arriving in Hong Kong.
Likewise, Dan Dan may seem carefree at first, but as we see the violence and emptiness of her life, we increasingly see the darkness and brokenness lying just below her seemingly glamorous exterior. Cheung once again proves why she’s one of Hong Kong’s finest actresses. She does an amazing job of communicating both Dan Dan’s bravado and her vulnerability, especially when it becomes apparent that she may be falling for the soft-spoken Lai Fu.
And while the cops should be the good guys, it’s much more complex and troubling than that. As they deal with the scum of Hong Kong’s streets, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whose worse: Liu and his ilk, or Milo and his teammates, who resort to all manner of bullying and intimidation to get the info they need. This comes to the forefront when Ben, a hotshot, idealistic rookie, joins the squad. As he comes face to face with the “do whatever it takes” methods of Milo and his men, he finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile his idealism with the questionable acts that are often necessary to get the job done.
Behind all of this is the colorful and exotic backdrop of Mongkok, and Yee goes to great lengths to communicate the tension, excitement, and danger of these streets (even borrowing a trick or two from Wong Kar-Wai’s stylebook at times). The film has a very gritty, realistic feel, again lifting it above being a merely stereotypical genre exercise. We can feel the cops’ growing frustration as they try to prevent a gang war, even going to illegal lengths to do so. And we can understand the desperation of Lai Fu when he begins to realize that he’s little more than a pawn in Liu’s attempt to save his own skin.
At the very end of the film, Dan Dan looks at the camera and asks why the city is named “Hong Kong” (the name comes from the city’s sweet-smelling origins as a spice-trading port). And considering all that she’s gone through, one understands why. Despite being a very stylish and commercial film, One Nite in Mongkok is a stunning and often disturbing look into the darker sides of humanity.
On the crowded streets of Mongkok, innocence is corrupted, the weak are constantly preyed on by the strong, and those who should be defending justice are often the most corrupt of all. And when the inevitable violence does erupt, it does so with truly tragic impact (one scene, in which Lai Fu is tortured by Dan Dan’s abusive client, is as gutwrenching and harrowing as much of OldBoy), leaving the audience to reeling amidst the fallout.
One Nite in Mongkok isn’t an upbeat film by any measure, although it’s punctuated by small moments of humanity (which, ironically enough, usually involve Lai Fu, the hired killer). But it is an enthralling one, completely enveloping you within the lives of its characters, and making pointed observations about human nature. As strange as this may sound, it’s been a long time since I was so overjoyed and thrilled to have seen a film as dark and troubling as this one. But it’s a very rare treat to see a film this honest and uncompromising come out of the Hong Kong of today, one that actually sticks with you long after the credits roll.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.