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Originally released back in 2011, “The Loan Shark” saw Malaysian director C.L. Hor following up on “The 3rd Generation” and his martial arts outing “Kinta” with a slice of tough though stylish undercover cop crime drama. While shot and set in Malaysia, the film features an interesting cast of familiar Hong Kong faces, including enduring character actors Sam Lee, known for roles in cult favourites such as “Biozombie” and “Dog Bite Dog”, and Johnny To regular Lam Suet (“Election”), singer Rosanne Lui and actress Irene Wan, popular in the 1980s after key roles in the likes of “Rouge” and “Everlasting Love”, and recently in “Triad”.
Taking the main lead is local model turned actress Jojo Goh, who stars as Mun Mun, a young woman who along with her brother Ah Lung (Sam Lee) has a great hatred of loan sharks after their father is hounded to death. Fast forward a few years, and the two are now both involved with loan sharking, Mun Mun working as an undercover cop trying to infiltrate a violent gang run by the shady Sky God (Lam Suet), and Ah Lung now a debt collector himself after their mother (Rosanne Lui) runs into gambling troubles. Though the two siblings are unaware of what the other is doing, their paths soon cross as they get tangled up with the villainous Hak Kau (Eddie Cheung).
“The Loan Shark” (previously known as “The Struggle”) is a bit of an odd film in that it tries to offer an in-depth and detailed look at the lives and crimes of illegal money lenders and debt collectors, while at the same time serving up stylised genre action with a vaguely art house feel. C.L. Hor is certainly a director with his own vision, and while it’s fair to say that he’s never quite managed to gel with the critics with any of his films, there’s something to be said for his mixed bag approach. On the plus side, the film does offer up some interesting insights into its subject matter, and this gives it a slightly different feel and themes to most other triad and gang pics – interestingly, Michael Chong, the MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) Public Service and Complaints Department Head acted as a consultant on the film, as well as appearing in a cameo role.
This semi-official backing doesn’t result in the same lack of moral blurring seen in so many crime films from Mainland China, and there’s a fair amount of depth to both the protagonists and the villains. This helps to make for a reasonable amount of human drama and tension, as well as distracting from the over-familiarity of the plot and its general lack of bite or invention. To be fair, Hor does make somewhat of an effort to shake things up through flashbacks and by not filling in all the blanks, though this doesn’t always work well, and the film would definitely have benefitted from better writing. Thankfully, the performances of the cast lift things up several notches, Sam Lee and Jojo Goh both convincing and likeable in the lead roles, and Eddie Cheung seems to have been having fun as the entertainingly vicious Hak Kau – though it has to be said that the presence of so many Hong Kong stars and the fact that the film was shot in Cantonese does undermine its realism a little.
While the film was clearly a low budget affair, Hor makes good use of his resources and limited locations to serve up some reasonably impressive visuals. Oddly, he seems to have been aiming for a 1990s style and look, with plenty of neon, smoke and shady colours, something which, coupled with the clichéd plot might well make fans of crime cinema from the period feel a touch nostalgic. The film also benefits from some surprisingly decent action, with quite a few fight scenes and fast moving chases scattered throughout, the standout sequence being an acrobatic rooftop pursuit involving Sam Lee (or at least his stunt double). Though not terribly violent, there’s just about enough blood and brutality on show to convince, offsetting some of Hor’s flashier moments with a welcome dose of grittiness.
Although there’s nothing here to mark “The Loan Shark” as a particularly memorable or great film, it’s better than expected and offers modest enjoyment for fans of Asian crime cinema. Bolstered by a solid and entertaining cast of Hong Kong stars, doing their best with a pedestrian script and story, it shows C.L. Hor to be a director of some talent, if one in need of a bit more inspiration.
C.L. Hor (director)
CAST: Sam Lee … Ah Long
Jojo Goh … Ah Mun