With its familiar sounding title and ex-con trying to go straight premise, “To Live and Die in Mongkok” is not immediately a particularly appealing prospect. However, the impeccably acclaimed cast should certainly arouse the interest, given that it includes Nick Cheung and Paw Hee Ching, winners of Best Actor and Best Actress at the 2009 Hong Kong Film Awards, not to mention Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress winners Liu Kai Chi and Chan Lai Wan. Although the presence of Wong Jing in the director’s chair, which he shares with frequent partner in crime Billy Chung, may give some cause for scepticism, it should be remembered that the Hong Kong shlockmeister has proved himself more than capable of turning serious when it suits, as seen in other quality triad dramas such as “Colour of the Truth”, and the recent “I Corrupt all Cops” and “Hong Kong Bronx”.
The film follows Nick Cheung (“The Beast Stalker”) as Fai, a triad member jailed for life following a brutal gang massacre, whose social worker (Chan Lai Wan) manages to secure him an early release on the grounds of mental illness. As a result of injuries and life behind bars, Fai has developed schizophrenia, frequently seeing visions of his younger and more violent self when feeling pressured. Unfortunately, life on the outside proves very difficult, as he tries to deal with his Alzheimer’s suffering mother (Paw Hee Ching), and a tense gang election scenario which sees former allies and enemies vying for his support. To make matters worse, he ends up in the middle of a dispute revolving around a feisty prostitute (Mo Xiaoqi) and her mentally-challenged younger sister (Natalie Meng), while the ruthless and corrupt policeman who first sent him to jail decades back (Liu Kai Chi), turns up again, determined to prove that he has not changed.
It’s pretty obvious from the first few frames that “To Live and Die in Mongkok” has Wong Jing and Billy Chung in full on gritty mode, with the film having a low budget, naturalistic look devoid of any gloss or glamorisation. This serves the film very well, and the shaky camera work perfectly captures the hustle, bustle and sleaze of the streets and back alleys, giving a sense of realism and threat. Although this grounded approach is frequently interrupted by a decidedly odd use of colours and saturation, along with some split screen work and strange video effects during flashbacks, the two different techniques combine well to give the film an injection of style and an interesting and quite unique overall look.
Although the basic story may sound familiar, the mental illness theme adds a fascinating twist, with it being obvious from early on that Fai is suffering from serious problems. His Fai junior split personality lends the proceedings a real tension, as the viewer is made aware that he could erupt suddenly into violence at any time. The sudden and random switches in his behaviour keep things unpredictable, as well as confusing most of the other characters and resulting in some uncomfortable and funny scenes. Nick Cheung is great in what was always going to be a very difficult role to pull off, and he manages to convince during both the film’s quiet and more crazed scenes. This certainly helps to set the film apart from all the other redemption/trying to go straight stories, and the fact that the rest of the cast are on similarly impressive form helps to make for a classier and more convincing experience.
The film is pretty bleak and harsh throughout, with the female characters in particularly coming off badly. There is a fair amount of violence, especially towards the end, with some vicious beatings and choppings. Despite this, the film does have the feel of a character piece more than a crime drama, and whilst it never gets too deeply into Fai’s damaged psyche, preferring to play his illness mainly for narrative tension, it becomes unexpectedly affecting and depressing, not least since the chances of a happy ending are clearly slim. There are a few moments of levity, with some amusing comments on Hong Kong film industry, though thankfully self referential moments are kept to a minimum, and there is little in the way of comic relief.
This steady handed approach, along with Cheung’s sterling work in the lead help to make “To Live and Die in Mongkok” one of the better films of its type of the last year. Although Wong Jing and Billy Chung have visited similar territory several times before, the film sees them on fine, mature form, proving that with strong characters and an interesting story, the age old triad themes can still grip and entertain.
Siu-hung Chung, Jing Wong (director) / Jing Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Nick Cheung … Fai
Kai Chi Liu … Gunner Yu
Kenny Lo … Assassin 1
Natalie Meng Yao … Penny
Monica Mok … Pamela
Ka-Hung Wai … Porky