One Nite in Mongkok (2004) Movie Review

After the celebrated triumph of “Lost in Time”, Hong Kong filmmaker Derek Yee returns with a story that is grittier and a whole lot messier than his previous award-winning film. The location this time around is Mongkok, known as the most populated city in the world. It’s here that Lai Fu (Daniel Wu), an uneducated villager from Mainland China, arrives to carry out an assassination on the behest of a Mongkok crime lord. But Lai Fu has an ulterior motive: he’s seeking a young woman name Sue, the love of his life, who came to Mongkok and hasn’t been heard from since.

As Lai Fu maneuvers through the foreign confines of Mongkok, he comes into contact with Dan (Cecilia Cheung), a young prostitute who, as luck would have it, is from the same village as Lai Fu. With many more trips to Mongkok under her belt, Dan is used to the hustle and bustle of the city, and after Lai Fu saves her from a violent john, she agrees to help him transverse the alleyways and crowded streets in search of Sue. Unbeknownst to them, cops led by Milo (Alex Fong) are after Lai Fu, hoping to head off a gang war if they can catch the hitman before he fulfills his contract.

By contrast, the script for “Lost in Time” must have looked like a simple napkin compared to the congested nature of “One Nite in Mongkok”. No doubt writer/director Derek Yee is drawing a parallel between his script’s overcrowded nature and the city featured in it. Even as Lai Fu and Dan navigate the city’s many red light districts in search of the elusive Sue, Milo is hot on his tail without ever knowing who Lai Fu is. Meanwhile, a middleman name Liu (Suet Lam) is playing both sides, hoping to lead Milo to Lai Fu while at the same time hoping to lead the would-be killer to his target. It’s a convoluted series of events that culminates in a bloody ending.

Cecilia Cheung returns as Yee’s muse, diving with aplomb into a character that looks shallow, but is in fact rather complex. She plays a village girl who is at once world weary and still naïve; when Lai Fu refuses an offer of free sex she thinks he’s weird, but when he buys her an expensive necklace, she gushes with authentic gratitude. Although there are shades of the generic “hooker with a heart of gold” in Dan, there are moments when we realize that Dan is only human. When Lai Fu pursues a purse-snatcher to retrieve Dan’s purse, Dan delights in the idea of running off with Lai Fu’s bags and the money inside. That is, until she discovers the gun inside the bag.

Not that the men of “One Nite in Mongkok” doesn’t hold their own. Daniel Wu (“Purple Storm”) is believable as the stoic Lai Fu. Although uneducated, Lai Fu is street smart, even if he has no idea what street he’s currently standing on. Tough and focused, he knows exactly where he’s going, even if he doesn’t know how to get there. When he discovers that Liu is playing both sides of the fence, Lai Fu retaliates, threatening to unleash vengeance that has Liu shaking in the streets. It’s only because of Dan’s presence that Liu finds salvation. As Lai Fu reminds Dan of what she used to be, Dan reminds Lai Fu that turning back is still possible, and all they have to do is go for it.

The third wheel in Derek Yee’s tale is Alex Fong (“Double Tap”), who is dead-on as the tired cop. Although the role might seem familiar, and Fong has certainly played the hardboiled cop more than once in his career, the quiet intensity of the man is impossible to ignore. Nowhere is Fong’s quiet, unassuming portrayal of Milo more effective than when he is in the presence of a young, trigger-happy cop. The contrast is so startling that you wonder how they’ll both survive the night.

If there is one fault with “One Nite in Mongkok” it’s that Yee never really allows for an alternative to the bleak ending that the film presents. The film is on such a nihilistic train track that it would have been impossible, and unrealistic, for “Mongkok” to end any other way. So while the ending is appropriate to the tale at hand, one is still left with a sense of inevitability. But again, it’s not as if the ending is an ambush in anyway. From the very beginning Yee has telegraphed the film’s grim conclusion, especially in the dialogue by the Mainlanders about their fate in life. The line, “My life is cheap,” shows up more than once.

Nevertheless, “One Nite in Mongkok” is the second strong film from Derek Yee in as many years. And although the film treads familiar ground, it’s still a very affecting story of hope lost, found, and lost again.

Derek Yee (director) / Derek Yee (screenplay)
CAST: Cecilia Cheung …. Dan
Daniel Wu…. Lai Fu
Alex Fong….Milo
Suet Lam….Liu

Buy One Nite in Mongkok on DVD