Running at a breezy 80 minutes (that is, if you don’t count the extensive John Woo-ish slow motion that makes up about half the film), Ching-po Wong’s “Jiang Hu” is nothing you haven’t seen before. In fact, if you’re even a little bit familiar with Hong Kong triad films, you can pretty much predict the outcome of “Jiang Hu” when you first see Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung’s characters say hello in the first few minutes. Does this mean “Jiang Hu” is not good? Not at all; but it does mean the movie holds few surprises.
Star and producer Andy Lau (“Running on Karma”) is Hung, a mob chieftain who, as the film opens, has just become a father. Hung’s criminal organization is made up of long-time best friend Lefty (Jacky Cheung), named such because he lost the use of his right hand during their rise up the underworld ranks, and three untrustworthy capos. It is quickly revealed that one of Hung’s underbosses has put a contract out of him, and Hung’s men are urgently trying to dig up the would-be killer. Meanwhile, young punks Yik (Shawn Yue) and his best friend Turbo (Edison Chen) are getting ready to make their first kill on their way to becoming gangsters. That is, if they don’t screw the pooch and get found out before the night is over.
As mentioned, if you were to take away all the slow motion in “Jiang Hu”, you’d be hard pressed to make the running time go over an hour. Even by Hong Kong standards, “Jiang Hu” is a short film, with half of the story spent in a single location — a restaurant where Hung and Lefty converse in private as a year’s worth of plots and counter plots take place around them within the underworld. It quickly becomes clear that not all is what it seems, and Hung’s underbosses might not be the only people Hung needs to worry about. Making the situation even more tenuous is that Lefty has just suggested to Hung that he move his family to New Zealand and leave the empire to him.
Even if it doesn’t break any new ground, there’s still a lot to like about Ching-po Wong’s sophomore effort (“Fu Bo” being his first). The first thing is the style, which infuses “Jiang Hu” with a slick look from the opening frame to the final shot. Although the short running time does seem to cut down on characterization, the progression of Shawn Yue’s Yik as he goes from wannabe to full-fledged killer is intriguing. While Yik’s desires to be a killer isn’t readily obvious, his dark personality gives the film the substance that the Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung confrontation lacks. Later, when a young prostitute name Yoyo enters Yik’s life, things get even more complicated.
If it seems as if I might be calling “Jiang Hu” old hat, you’re not far off. Every genre has its cliché and conventions, and “Jiang Hu” doesn’t — and really seems not to care to — buck the system. As with the recent “Infernal Affairs 2”, the script by Chi-long To is heavily influenced by the narrative structure of the “Godfather”, in particular the long sequences where gunmen goes about town “cleaning house” as per their boss’ orders. Which leads to this: for a Triad film, “Jiang Hu” is strangely very sterile when it comes to the violence. Even a knife battle in the rain, at the end, is almost entirely devoid of blood.
Although the big name here is Andy Lau, it’s young Mister Shawn Yue who really shines. Yue has already shown in the “Infernal Affairs” films that he’s got the intensity for movie roles like this, and his brooding Yik is what makes “Jiang Hu” works. Of note is the scene where Yik visits his mother to give her the money he’s been paid ahead of time for the night’s assassination. We learn that Yik’s brother and father were also would-be killers who fell during their first night, and that they, too, had come to Yik’s mother with the same bundle of money. It’s a powerful scene, played with great affect by all involved.
Toward the end of “Jiang Hu” there’s a Big Reveal, but it’s nothing to get overly excited about, especially since I guessed the film’s big plot twist about 30 minutes in. Am I the most brilliant online movie reviewer ever? Probably. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve seen too many films; and besides, it’s not as if “Jiang Hu” tried very hard to hide it. Pay attention and you’ll figure it out, too.
“Jiang Hu” will probably be a bit of a letdown to those already familiar with the genre. For everyone else, “Jiang Hu” is an effective entry that warrants a look see. It’s certainly visually attractive, and the dead-on performance of Shawn Yue as the doomed killer steals the show.
Ching-Po Wong (director) / Chi-long To (screenplay)
CAST: Edison Chen …. Turbo
Jacky Cheung …. Lefty
Andy Lau …. Hung
Shawn Yue …. Yik