'Robbery': Hong Kong Review

Robbery Still - H 2016
Courtesy Hong Kong International Film Festival
Works well when it hits its targets and misses by a mile when it doesn’t.

Fire Lee leads a strong cast of reliable supporting players through a satiric, violent and challenging comedy-thriller.

A disparate group of losers and felons cross paths to bloody and bizarre ends in Fire Lee’s comedic crime-thriller Robbery, a de facto chamber piece unfolding in a surreal convenience store over the course of one night. Lee’s aggressively odd hodgepodge of visuals, music and even performance is the kind of ambitious quasi-satire that divides audiences down the middle; adored and loathed in equal measure for its outlandish gore and over-the-top narrative. Midnight madness-type screenings are the film's best outlet. As a movie by Hongkongers for Hongkongers, Robbery’s international shelf life will be limited, but it could easily find a cultish following on download.

The pic starts strong, with protagonist Lau Kin-ping (Derek Tsang), explaining in voiceover how miserable he is at home in his tiny flat, with bickering parents to one side and a brother trying for a baby on the other. The bleakness of his dead-end life at 32 — the same age Bruce Lee was when he died, as Ping notes — is underscored when he witnesses a double suicide on the way to work, newlyweds evidently eager for death to do them part. It’s grim, with washed out images to match.

In need of a job, Ping the “loser” impulsively applies for a clerk’s gig at a 24-hour convenience store/cafe/laundromat he passes, and begins his first shift immediately. The store, Exceed, is run by the constantly up-selling manager (Lam Suet) and also staffed by Mabel (J. Arie), with whom Ping forms a fast bond as they carry out petty acts of rebellion. Soon enough, the night takes a strange and deadly turn. First to arrive at Exceed is a story-spinning ex-con (Feng Tsui-fan), then comes homicidally confused undercover cop (Philip Keung, showing off an alarming and heretofore unknown hint of sex appeal), a buxom woman role-playing a cheerleader (Anita Chui) and her Robert Downey Jr.-lite entrepreneur/gangster boyfriend (Eric Kwok). The final players on board come in the form of a suicidal mad bomber (Ken Lo) and, much later, Mabel’s fiancé Chevis (Edward Ma). Nothing is as it seems but no one gets out alive. Almost.

Robbery is, for lack of a more precise word, tonally bonkers, rooted in a strange mix of toilet humor (literally, Keung’s cop’s gastrointestinal issues, in full stereo, lead him into the store), fleeting genuine wit and absurdism. The cast demonstrates some good comic timing and each is clearly committed to their role — though Arie and Chui in particular have far less to work with. Lam spends most of the film with scissors stuck in his neck (it’s the ball that starts the whole thing rolling) and does so with such casual disregard it’s nearly performance art. And the strong moments are indeed strong: A Stephen Chow-esque (but not quite at that level) debate about disarming the bomb and pulling the scissors out of the manager’s neck and the players interrupting a bloodbath when a little boy walks in, only to return to their places for another “take,” are inspired set pieces. An eclectic soundtrack featuring Country & Western, surf rock and retro Top 40 pop among others complements the crazy, as does help in editing from veteran Wenders Li (a regular for Pang Ho-cheung) and hyperstylized, saturated cinematography by Tam Wai-kai.

But none of that can completely redeem a muddled plot and some unsavory elements that fall flat. Robbery has a weak through-line that bends and stretches beyond logic or suspension of disbelief before outright snapping more than once. If the third-act “twist” is meant to explain away the rest of the story’s narrative blunders, it doesn’t; it adds to the confusion. Add to that a healthy dose of homophobia and misogyny — both of which wallow in their tropes rather than criticize them — and the end result is an up-and-down curiosity that may have worked better as a short. Lee, who also wrote the script, has a good eye for images, and he clearly has something to say about the rudderless state of Hong Kong, calling Exceed an allegory for a city on the verge of exploding (as explicitly demonstrated by Ping’s graphic t-shirt, emblazoned with “This City Is F---ing Stuck”), but he’s bitten off more than he can thematically chew here. Though it revels in its outré storytelling, in Robbery’s case, less could have been more.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
Production company: Sun Entertainment Culture Ltd.
Cast: Derek Tsang, J. Arie, Lam Suet, Philip Keung, Feng Tsui-fan, Anita Chui, Aaron Chow, Eric Kwok, Edward Ma, Ken Lo
Director: Fire Lee
Screenwriter: Fire Lee, Frankie Tam, He Xin
Producer: Chan Hin-kai, Paco Wong, Paul Cheng
Executive producer: Alvin Chau, Alex Dong
Director of photography: Tam Wai-kai
Production designer: Lee Tsz-fun
Costume designer: Cindy Cheung
Editors: Chan Ki-hop, Wenders Li
Music: CW, Ben Chong
World sales: Bravos Pictures

In Cantonese

Not rated, 93 minutes