2004 was a vintage year for Asian cinema, as one can tell from a brief survey of the runners in the Hong Kong film awards for that year. Wong Kar Wei's flawed masterpiece, 2046, was nominated in practically all the categories and won the Best Actor and Actress awards, as well as for Best Cinematography and Design. That work of cinematic genius, KUNG FU HUSTLE, also won a bunch of awards, including Best Film. One of my all-time favourite movies, OLDBOY, won Best Asian Film, with ZATOICHI also nominated. But neither 2046 nor KFH got the Best Director gong - that went to Yee Kung-Shing for ONE NIGHT IN MONG KOK. So immediately, I need to see this film, and now that it is out on Region 2 DVD, I finally get my chance.
The opening 15 minutes set up the movie in real style. We see two rival triad gangs going, literally, head-on, in a brothel-brawl that spills out into a vicious car accident. Apparently, this is every day stuff in Mong Kok - a district of Hong Kong teeming with mobsters, drug-dealers, whores and people flogging fake Rolexes. (So, sort of like Oxford Street, but without the mobsters and drug-dealers.) The action is shot in black and white with hand-held cameras. The whole thing has real energy and authenticity. You think you are in for the Hong Kong version of CITY OF THE GODS. Flip to the next day and the "middle" of the movie. Daniel Yu plays a provincial dolt who has been shipped in by one of the gang leaders, via the local "fixer", to kill the other gang leader. The key point is that Daniel Yu's character is not a professional assassin but a poor kid who fully realises that he is likely to be caught and serve time for murder. But he is still willing to go through with the assassination, secure in the knowledge that his family will be living off the phat cash he has earned. The police are afraid that a successful assassination will provoke full-scale gang warfare and try to prevent the murder.
There are two things wrong with the middle of the film. First, the attempt at realism in the first segment is undermined by the cartoon-like characters in the second segment. The fixer and his wife and dressed in the kind of mad, country club get-up last seen on a golf course in the 1950s. The fixer has "jingle bells" as his ring-tone, this being Christmas Eve. These characters ARE funny, but completely destroy the tension. The second major error is the introduction of a cliched "hooker with a heart of gold" character. By pure chance/fate, our erstwhile assassin saves the life of an annoyingly flaky prostitute called Dan Dan, played by Cecilia Cheung, who is also earning money by dubious means for her dear family back in Hicksville. Together these two skip through Mong Kok, eating obscenely large meals and buying gold chains with their new cash. The whole thing is rather irritating and dull and goes on for around an hour.
However, the final twenty minutes almost, but not quite, redeem the picture. We are back to gritty, urban, intelligent, ultra-violent thriller. We see how the police are conflicted between doing the right thing, and just keeping their heads down and staying alive: the pressures of making " a big bust" to get promotion versus the need to solve the actual case in hand. These are not the wholly corrupt police of Hollywood movies, nor are they whiter-than-white. Instead, they make wrong choices for the right reasons. Similarly, our assassin gets entangled both with the police and Dan Dan's angry trick. The whole thing is a chapter of accidents and mistakes and no-one comes out of it with much glory.
To sum up: the beginning and end of ONE NIGHT IN MONG KOK are stylish, substantially interesting, and tense. The middle is deeply deeply dull. Whether it is worth your renting the DVD anyways will largely depend on how fond you are of Asian ultra-violence. I have to say that I am pretty addicted to extreme cinema, but, on balance, I probably could have done without this movie.
ONE NIGHT IN MONGKOK was released in Asia in 2004, and had a limited release in UK cinemas in September 2005. It is now available on Region 2 DVD.