'The Mobfathers': Filmart/HKIFF Review

The Mob fathers - H 2016
Hong Kong International Film Festival
A serviceable gangster thriller with a social undercurrent.

Stars Anthony Wong and comedian Chapman To team up with director Herman Yau for a fast-paced Triad thriller that recalls the glory days of Hong Kong crime flicks.

Everyone seems to be on Hong Kong’s democratic bandwagon these days, and so it’s no surprise that one of the industry’s most socially engaged filmmakers is getting in on the action. Herman Yau’s The Mobfathers is one of two films the prolific director is premiering at HKIFF this year, one in which he doubles down on the political commentary by casting two actors allegedly blacklisted in China in starring roles and unleashing the kind of Category III bloody mayhem that made him famous. Sure to be dubbed Election-lite, The Mobfathers has no time for that kind of subtlety, instead going all in on old-school 1980s and early-’90s-style gangster action, complete with street fights, choppings and some truly shocking narrative turns. With pioneers like Ringo Lam and John Woo largely out of the game, Yau is left to carry the torch for this kind of commercial entertainment with added social conscience. The film is likely to be a hit at home in Hong Kong if the sold-out HKIFF screening is a harbinger of things to come, and limited release in other parts of Asia-Pacific isn’t out of the question. It will be welcome in niche urban markets overseas and genre festival play is a sure bet.

When the Jing Hing gang’s big boss (Yau regular Anthony Wong, blacklister number one) is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he sets the wheels in motion to find a replacement and a new Dragon Head, the day-to-day boss/right hand, for the gang. The prime candidates are Jing Hing lifer Chuck (Chapman To blacklister number two, also a producer here), freshly released from prison, and Wulf (Gregory Wong, Lazy Hazy Crazy) an up-and-coming pretty boy with an eye toward the digital future. As Chuck tries to balance retaking his seat at the Triad table with reinserting himself into his family, which includes a son he’s never known and an angry wife tired of his criminal lifestyle (Bonnie Xian), he finds himself becoming disillusioned with the election process. It ends badly.

There is no mystery surrounding how The Mobfathers is going to play out, cleaving closely as it does to gangster tradition, but in this case getting there is half the fun. Yau and writer Erica Li are brisk in their storytelling (the title card comes roughly 40 minutes in), and start the action off early, with the brutal street fight that lands Chuck in jail, and keep it moving to the very end. Toggling back and forth between violence and brief character moments, To is allowed to indulge his comic chops on a few occasions, and Wong glowers as only he can as the mob boss and puppet master, dancing around the periphery of the narrative and oozing untrustworthiness. The only element that sticks out as vaguely out of place is a B plot involving Chuck’s faithful buddy Luke (Trivisa’s Philip Keung, always welcome) who reconnects with a long-lost sick daughter and so is saved from the film’s fatal finale. If the idea was to contrast Luke’s ability to find a place within his family and a way out of the life with Chuck’s failure to do so, it’s one that is simply inferred. If it was to illustrate the miserable bedside manner of Hong Kong doctors, it succeeded.

The real highlight, however, comes when Yau and Li get out their cudgels and set Chuck off on a plea for Triad-wide suffrage, demanding one-man, one-vote rules for all gang members and condemning a system that allows a handful of people to choose a leader and cast everyone’s fate. Despite some of the film’s more questionable creative choices — Wulf smacks of gay panic, Chuck’s wife is ultimately little more than the girl in the fridge — there’s an unapologetic boldness about it that gives it the kind of attitude more refined filmmakers avoid. Yau is not known as a stylist, but working with his regular cinematographer Joe Chan he’s created a simultaneously garish and grainy aesthetic that serves the story well and exploits Hong Kong's glittery seediness. The Mobfathers ends on a suitably downbeat note, the final frames demonstrating the futility of trying to change the Jing Hing and putting an exclamation point on the whole exercise.

Production company: HK Film Limited

Cast: Chapman To, Anthony Wong, Gregory Wong, Philip Keung, Bonnie Xian, Carlos Chan, Danny Summer, Dragon Li, Albert Cheung, Deep Ng, Ken Hung, Tarah Chan

Director: Herman Yau

Screenwriter: Erica Li

Producer: Chapman To

Director of photography: Joe Chan

Production designer: Chris Pong

Costume designer: Irving Cheung

Editor: Azrael Chung

Music: Brother Hung

World sales: GoldenScene

In Cantonese

No rating, 93 minutes