Does Herman Yau take holidays? Does he take weekends? Does he even sleep? On the evidence for 2009, it seems not, as he managed to churn out no less than 4 films, “Split Second Murders”, “Turning Point”, “The First 7th Night”, and finally, “Rebellion”, which now arrives on DVD. Although as a cat III rated triad thriller the film sees him returning to familiar territory, as usual Yau offers something a little different, whilst still managing to deliver interesting characters, grounded genre action, and even a little social commentary. The film boasts an impressive cast, headlined by the equally hard working Shawn Yue (“Shamo”) and including top television actress Ada Choi, comedian Chapman To (who previously had a taste of triad drama in the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy), and pop idols Elanne Kong (Happy Funeral) and Ella Koon (Look for a Star).
The film takes place over a single night on the crime ridden streets of Eastern Kowloon, a district ruled over by a group of five triad bosses who happily co-exist thanks to a long standing truce. The peace is shattered after an assassination attempt on boss Jimmy (Calvin Poon), sending the other leaders scrambling for position as they try to work out who is to blame. Jimmy’s wife Cheung Wah (Ada Choi), basically the power behind the throne, is on her way back from a trip, and passes the leadership and the responsibility for protecting his territory to bodyguard Po (Shawn Yue). This proves to be easier said than done, as the other bosses all attempt to manipulate him and persuade him to take their side, in particular the vicious Blackie (Chapman To), another of Jimmy’s men who believes he should have been the one to step into the role. Helped by Ling (Elanne Kong), Po sets about solving the mystery of Jimmy’s shooting, all the while unfortunately suffering from a dreadful hangover.
“Rebellion” begins as it means to continue, in strikingly efficient fashion, with Yau employing a neat voice over to introduce the myriad characters and their schemes in a way which might well have taken half the running time of another film. This holds true throughout, as the film rattles along at a fast pace, consistently cutting right to the chase without any unnecessary clutter. Yau brings a gritty authenticity to the proceedings, thanks to a series of nice touches, such as Po’s never-ending hangover, which is made all the worse by other characters constantly forcing him to drink, resulting in frequent bouts of vomiting. Similarly, the relationship between Po and Ling is winningly offbeat, with her quite blatantly taking the lead and pushing him to make decisions. Wisely underplayed, their dynamic lends the film a surprisingly touching, emotional core – though this is almost derailed by a horrible ballad love theme that plays during most of their scenes together, just in case some slower viewers didn’t get the point that they might kind of like each other.
Although the story itself is familiar, Yau’s storytelling helps to keep things engaging, playing out through flashbacks, differing perspectives and a final act twist that ends things on a ruthlessly ironic, if perhaps not wholly unpredictable note. Oddly, its when the film is away from the somewhat dull Po and his straightforward quest to find the gunman, that it is at its most entertaining, thanks to a supporting cast of amusingly unconventional and badly behaved characters. The other triad bosses are a fascinating bunch, all obsessively scheming against and backstabbing each other, while at the same time maintaining far more interesting, if rather broad personas of their own beyond simple greed or hunger for territory. Through this, Yau injects a few passing swipes at Hong Kong society, and even at international politics. Whilst this is not really enough to give the film any real depth or intelligence, it does add a further sense of quirkiness that helps to keep it in line with the director’s other works.
Unfortunately, the cat III rating appears to have been awarded for subject matter and tone rather than for any of the graphic violence that some of Yau’s fans might have expected, and aside from some rather lame use of CGI towards the end there is little in the way of bloodshed. Still, there is a decent amount of action in the form of sleaze, fight scenes, car chases and choppings, enough so to keep things reasonably visceral.
As a result, although not one of Yau’s best films, or even his best of 2009, “Rebellion” makes for entertaining viewing, and is certainly above average for the genre. Benefiting considerably from a moderately clever script and its intriguingly strange supporting cast, it does no harm to the director’s reputation as one of the most consistent and prolific talents in Hong Kong cinema.
Herman Yau (director) / Herman Yau, Yin-Yee Tin (screenplay)
CAST: Shawn Yue … Ng Bo
Elanne Kwong … Ling
Chapman To … Blackie
Conroy Chan Chi-Chung … Jupiter
Ada Choi … Cheung Wah
Renee Dai … Lok