The Last Tycoon: Film Review
Multihyphenate Wong Jing, China's answer to Roger Corman and Russ Meyer, releases his latest film about a man from humble beginnings who rises to become a powerful gangster.
The latest surefire moneymaker from the prolific and profitable Wong Jing, Hong Kong’s answer to Roger Corman and Russ Meyer in one glorious, exploitive package, is a bit of a surprise entry for the multi-hyphenate in that the iron grip it maintains on the hoariest of H.K. cinema traditions works to its favor. The Last Tycoon is the kind of demi-epic the industry cranked out by the dozen in the 1980s and early ’90s and it would appear Wong has found a way to marry the bombastic, sometimes underhanded heroism of that era with the 21st century Mainland-ready version of it. It also appears that Wong actually made an effort for producer Andrew Lau (The Guillotines, Infernal Affairs), and so Tycoon is probably his most polished and entertaining directorial outing in years.
Writer-producer-director-actor Wong’s occasionally inflammatory career dates back to the mid-1970s, and for every goofily titillating romp (the original, less misogynistic Sex and Zen), allegedly triad-glorifying action series (Young and Dangerous) or out-and-out gorefest (Ebola Syndrome) he’s managed a God of Gamblers, Lee Rock and Naked Killer. The Last Tycoon belongs in the latter group, and stocked as it is with major talent — chiefly superstar Chow Yun-fat — that still gets attention regionally, the film should have a decent run in Asia-Pacific. Hardcore Hong Kong/Asia movie buffs will be drawn by both the old-school storytelling and talent, which could help the film gain traction in niche markets and on the genre festival circuit. A healthy DVD life is also not out of the question.
Chow plays Cheng Daqi, a man of humble beginnings that rises in the ranks of pre-WWII era underworld Shanghai to become a powerful gangster — or a more Mainland-friendly “tycoon.” Take your pick. Just as his power peaks, the war breaks out and Cheng feels compelled to use his influence to beat back the Japanese. The story starts during Daqi’s youthful days in Jiangsu (where he’s played by Huang Xiaoming) with his budding opera singer beloved Ye Zhiqiu (Joyce Feng), moves on to his involvement with Shanghai mob boss Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung) and ongoing thorny relationship with a dodgy army officer Mao Zai (always welcome Francis Ng). Years later Daqi meets up with Zhiqiu (now played by Yolanda Yuan) again, kick-starting a love triangle that proves to be the film’s weakest link.
Nonetheless, and against all logic and better judgment, the film functions perfectly as an entertainment. Wong and co-writers Philip Lui and Manfred Wong take something of a kitchen sink stance toward the script: it’s one part historical gangster actioner, one part love story and one part spy thriller (Zhiqiu’s husband is part of the resistance). No single element is fleshed out enough to really make a point but somehow Wong keeps the over packed narrative on track just enough to make it work as a whole. A great deal of credit needs to go to the holy trinity of Chow, Hung and Ng. Chow is thrust into countless deliberate mythmaking and/or myth-affirming action sequences, the least of which is a shootout in a church (including doves) and some honorable thief posturing that recalls an early Chow television series. Hung makes an entrance that could have been ripped from any of his best martial epics. Ng is Ng, holding onto his crown as Hong Kong’s most blissfully menacing actor.
Technically The Last Tycoon is one of Wong’s more accomplished offerings, even with the film’s dire need for a new sound mix to combat the ear-splitting explosions (of which there are scores). The film looks impeccable: the production design, set decoration and costumes are pitch perfect and the Shanghai of the 1930s is convincing. As expected of a period epic there is no shortage of vivid set pieces — a rain-drenched assassination attempt, a brilliantly choreographed theater assassination and the aforementioned church gun fight. Wong manages to recall The Killer, The Godfather, Casablanca and Bonnie and Clyde so shamelessly that what comes out on the other side is a bizarrely comforting bit of nostalgia filmmaking. Box office success in China relies on Daqi’s anti-hero being more “hero” than “anti-” (Daqi becomes a banker a one point, somehow considered less shady than organized crime lord), but regardless The Last Tycoon ends up a diverting romp that makes no apologies for its entertainment for entertainment’s sake attitude.
Production companies: Mega Vision Pictures, Bona Film Group
Sales: Distribution Workshop
Producer: Andrew Lau
Director: Wong Jing
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Gao Hu, Francis Ng, Huang Xiaoming, Sammo Hung, Yolanda Yuan, Monica Mok, Xie Baoqing
Screenwriter: Philip Lui, Manfred Wong, Wong Jing
Executive producer: Yu Dong, Jeffrey Cheng
Director of photography: Jason Kwan, Andrew Lau
Production designer: Chung Man-yee
Music: Kwong Wing-chan
Costume designer: Ivy Chan, Jessie Dai
Editor: Wai Chiu Chung
No rating, 115 minutes