Just as “Infernal Affairs” launched a thousand angst ridden undercover cop dramas, Johnnie To’s “Election” has had a similar, if not as marked effect on the Hong Kong film industry, with its international success having inspired a number of similar triad themed productions. The latest of these is “Who’s Next”, from writer, producer and director Chung Kai Cheung (previously responsible for the enjoyable “A1”), a film which boasts a fine cast of genre regulars, and which manages to cram in pretty much every cliché of the form, though thankfully to entertaining effect.
Although the basic plot of a triad leadership struggle is suspiciously familiar, “Who’s Next” does at least try to distance itself somewhat from the “Election” films by featuring obviously sympathetic protagonists in the form of two brothers, namely Hung Bin (Gordon Lam, a frequent genre player, notably also in “Election”), the older son of a triad boss and a gangster himself, recently released from prison, and younger son Tin Yau (Tsui Tin Yau, recently in the award winning “After This Our Exile”) who has been studying in the US, oblivious to his family’s criminal activities. After their father is knocked out of the contest by a fatal slashing, the two come up against his rival, the flamboyant psycho Song (Jordan Chan, another genre mainstay, recently in “Wo Hu”) who immediately nabs his body, determined to use the upcoming funeral for his own ends to help him seize power. Making things even more complicated is police inspector Dai (Patrick Tam, excellent in the classic “Beast Cops”), who rushes around trying his best to prevent a gang war from erupting, though who it soon emerges may have a few schemes of his own.
To be honest, any viewers not inspired or particularly grabbed by the above synopsis are probably better off avoiding “Who’s Next”, as it really is a film for triad genre fans – not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as it certainly plays to its strengths and delivers according to expectations. Although a little uninspired, the plot still has a few twists and turns along the way, enough at least to keep things interesting, and the central conceit of linking the power struggle to the appearances and disappearances of a corpse is intriguing, if not always believable, as the poor stiff is transported here and there without much thought given to obvious practicalities. The film is moderately suspenseful throughout, and director Chung does manage to build up a fair amount of tension as it heads towards the reasonably unexpected climax. Similarly, the characters are an engaging bunch, with the differences between the two brothers being used to work in a little moral complexity. Jordan Chan pretty much steals the show, however, with a shameless display of overacting, which helps to spice things up and to add a few unintentional laughs, though it is hard at times to take him seriously as a convincing villain, and this does make things a little less gripping than they might perhaps have been.
Where the film does fall down somewhat is in its lack of action, and more importantly, of the kind of graphic violence which would have made it a far more visceral affair. As things stand, there are only a few short bursts of clumsily handled bloodshed, and as a result the film comes across at times as being a bit of a television drama rather than the kind of gritty genre production it clearly aims to be. This is furthered by some cheap production values, and the fact that although Chung keeps things rattling along efficiently enough, his direction lacks any real flair or style, never coming close to adding a sense or either danger or glamour to the gang world.
Despite this and its basic lack of originality, “Who’s Next” still offers triad film fans enough betrayals and hand wringing about family and loyalty to entertain, and whilst certainly not in the same league as “Election” or its sequel, it performs well enough to earn a pass. Of course, given the talent involved, it should probably have been better, but without wishing to damn through faint praise, it stands as an enjoyable time waster that could certainly have been worse.
Chung Kai Cheung (director) / Chung Kai Cheung (screenplay)
CAST: Jordan Chan, Gordon Lam, Patrick Tam, Tsui Tin Yau, Kiki Sheung