It’s loser-take-all in Felix Chong’s goofy triad comedy
“A wolf in charge eats meat. A dog in charge eats shit.”
Sometimes, it’s good to not be the main character; to retire from whatever crazy life you had before and watch as the world around you partakes in madness. For characters like Roast Pork (Jordan Chan), a few years in the triads was only a means to acquire the funds to start a restaurant. But, as we learnt in the Johnnie To movie Election 2 – once you’re in, there’s no leaving. When the current triad boss Kerosene (Alex Fong) has to quit for financial reasons, he urges Roast Pork to join the race to be voted the new boss. For Roast Pork, salvation comes when the supposed heir to the position, Sparrow (Ekin Cheng) returns from prison, but now he has reformed and also doesn’t want to be voted in. So begins a madcap series of events, which both parties trying desperately to lose to the other.
Director Felix Chong had been a decade deep into his screenwriting career by the time he made Once a Gangster, and in that time had penned about fifteen crime and triad films. Among those was the comedy Tokyo Raiders, the acclaimed Overheard and arguably his biggest success (and still one of my all-time favourite films) Infernal Affairs. That is to say, he certainly had a lot of experience in the genre. And his understanding of genre conventions is on full display, as he takes well-worn tropes and turns on them on each other – if only he did it more.
Actually, Chong doesn’t even have a screenwriting credit here. He gets one for story, but the script itself is given to us by Lau Ho-leung, of Kung Fu Killer. Once a Gangster’s biggest flaw is that it all too often plays the story completely straight. This isn’t bad in and of itself – see Chong’s contributions to HK’s iconic crime cinema scene above – but it means that this satirical spin on the triad election never goes in as weird a direction as it could. This gives the movie something of a disjointed feel from time to time as otherwise serious scenes are punctuated by ludicrous performances from the main cast.
The parodies are plenty, and humour is very self-referential. A lot of jokes went over my head – I think. Either that or they weren’t very funny, and when you’re watching a foreign language film parody pop culture you’re not perfectly aware of, it can be damn near impossible to tell. There is an ongoing, straight parody of Infernal Affairs throughout (arguably one of the movie’s most endearing jokes), Andrew Lau is even namechecked and there are also plenty of meeting scenes reminiscent of those movies about triad elections – but I still wouldn’t recommend it to any casual viewers of Hong Kong triad films.
The casting of Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan is something of a joke as well. Known for their turn in Young and Dangerous, these two leads now play characters that embody none of those traits. They’ve aged, they’ve paid for their crimes and now they just want to get on with their lives in as least dangerous a way as possible. The rest of the cast is known for working in various crime films as well, so it’s fun to see everyone play goofy, over-the-top versions of their usual typecast.
Once a Gangster is a tough film to judge. On its own, it’s OK. It’s not the best-written gangster movie, but it has enough going for it that I’m not angry I watched it. However, it’s also kind of forgettable and probably could have done with committing 100% to parody, like an early Stephen Chow or even the 2004 Infernal Affairs spoof Love is a Many Stupid Thing (which undoubtedly has a better Chinese title). Felix Chong is a great screenwriter when he’s in his element, and maybe Once a Gangster could have benefitted from his input there. You’re probably better off watching a Benny Chan crime comedy, or one of Chong’s more serious efforts.
Verdict: Never quite as funny as it could have been, Once a Gangster still has its share of memorable moments and funny scenes.
Overall entertainment: 6/10
Gang violence snack of choice: Bread
Don’t eat: The mince meat.
Chapman To: Contributed to the story, but the film could have really benefitted from an increased presence from him.
Once a Gangster (2010)
Also known as: 飛砂風中轉
Director: Felix Chong
Writer: Lau Ho-leung
Ekin Cheng – Sparrow
Jordan Chan – Roast Pork
Alex Fong – Kerosene
Michelle Ye – Nancy
Candice Yu – Lady Pearl
Wilfred Lau – Yan
Conroy Chan – Scissor