'Gangster Pay Day': Busan Review

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
An old-school Hong Kong gangster thriller with a comic touch that revels in its roots.

Veteran Lee Po Cheung returns to the Triad melodrama genre's origins for a rare Hong Kong film about Hong Kong

In the 1980s and 1990s, audiences could barely go a few days without a new melodrama that (allegedly) glamorized Triad life hitting screens or flooding DVD shelves.

Since then, the Hong Kong film industry has changed and so has the city, two ideas that journeyman filmmaker Lee Po Cheung embraces in the imperfect but entertaining and oddly specific Gangster Pay Day, closing out the 2014 Busan Film Festival.

Lee assembles a strong cast with a clutch of small parts and cameos for actors from the ’80s heyday (Hello, Carrie Ng!) for a workmanlike but sneakily critical story of a retired gangster trying to stay on the straight and narrow. Gangster should go over well at home, and audiences keen for a bit of cinematic nostalgia in other parts of Asia should sit up and take notice. Elsewhere the film’s prospects are best in niche festival and urban markets where the HK brand still works.

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Retired Triad boss Ghost (Anthony Wong, in extra cheeky form) is trying his best to keep out of trouble and live like a normal, respectable citizen. His “brothers” Leung (Wong Yau Nam), Brother B (Ng Chi Hung, always welcome on screens) and Uncle 2 (Chan Wai Man, ditto) while away their days either at their karaoke bar or the massage parlor. Trouble starts for Ghost when rival thug Bill (Keung Hon Man) tries to muscle him into selling drugs through his clubs, and later moving out of a teahouse he owns to make way for a shady real estate development.

At the same time, teahouse worker Mei (Charlene Choi) meets and falls for Leung when she makes a delivery to the club, in turn becoming Ghost’s object of infatuation. Anyone familiar with this kind of Hong Kong film knows that one side of the love triangle is not long for this world, and sure enough, a murder inspires a plot for revenge against Bill. Then everyone has tea.

There is very little in swift-moving Gangster Pay Day that is either surprising or innovative. Lee and co-writer Lily He work within the bounds that define the genre and don’t get fancy with visuals. But there’s something comfortingly familiar about it that wins you over despite its predictability and fundamental silliness. What is innovative is the subtle comments on the film industry and the state of Hong Kong in general. Ghost is painfully aware that the days of the Triad are all but over, and that even once omnipresent karaoke seems to be falling by the wayside. Wong has played the intimidating Triad dozens of times, and here the bulk of the film’s comedy comes at his expense; his clumsy and corny attempt to woo Mei are a running gag. Even Ng, a notorious movie tough guy, spends most of his time in the film being sweetly goofy. What sorcery is this?

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Most pointed is Ghost and Bill’s face-off over the teahouse property. Hong Kong lives and dies by its property industry (they make horror films about this), and Lee and He have a great time equating the heavies of old (Triads) with the bad guys of now (developers).

That makes it sound like Gangster Pay Day is deeper than it really is. The film is fundamentally a fluffy diversion with a bit more smarts than expected and an unapologetically Hong Kong film (it’s spoken entirely in Cantonese, a rarity these days) that basks in its own cinematic legacy.

Production company: Sundream Motion Pictures
Cast: Anthony Wong, Charlene Choi, Wong You Nam, Ng Chi Hung, Chan Wai Man, Keung Hon Man, Deep Ng, Cheung Tong Cho, Ai Wai, Carrie Ng, Law Wing Cheong
Director: Lee Po Cheung
Screenwriters: Lily He, Lee Po Cheung
Producer: Shirley Yung
Executive producer: Stephan Ng
Director of photography: Yun Chun Wah
Production designer: Tony Yu
Costume designer: Crystal Pa
Editor: Chung Wai Chiu

Music: Brother Hung
Sales: Star Alliance Movies

No rating, 97 minutes