'Two Thumbs Up': Hong Kong Review

Two Thumbs Up Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Hong Kong International Film Festival

Two Thumbs Up Still - H 2015

A midnight movie in the making

'The Great Magician' writer Lau Ho-leung's cultish directorial debut stars Hong Kong heavyweights Francis Ng and Simon Yam.

In the second minibus-based adventure to come down the pipe in as many years (after Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After), Hong Kong screenwriter Lau Ho-leung (Painted Skin, The Great Magician) steps behind the camera for his first turn as director, a film clearly steeped in the youthful influences absorbed during the local industry’s glory days. Making its world premiere at HKIFF, Two Thumbs Up is the latest entry in what could be considered an emerging trend if Lee Po-cheung’s Gangster Payday, Alan Yuen’s ridiculous Firestorm and, to a degree, Lok Man-leung and Sunny Luk’s Cold War are any indication, one that is seeing the Hong Kong film industry return to, and embrace, its pulpy Cantonese-language 1980s and ’90s heyday.

With production values just low enough to give it a cult film edge but no so rough as to eliminate it from broader festival acceptance, Two Thumbs Up’s bizarre sense of humor and familiar (if secondary) themes should allow it to find a place in many a midnight program. Urban markets regionally in Asia-Pacific and overseas should also take notice, particularly with distributor Emperor going to bat for it. Its success at home will depend on the appeal of the lead actors (which is still fairly strong) as well as how audiences take to the film’s unapologetic oddness.

We start in Malaysia with petty but proud Hong Kong thief Lucifer, or Big F (Francis Ng, sporting one of the most spectacular mullets of all time), getting out of prison. Upon his return home, he looks up the scattered members of his old crew. Crazy B (Simon Yam, himself in possession of a kickin’ demi-afro) is working at a bowling hall and evidently living above the lanes. The purple-favoring Johnny T (Patrick Tam, and yes, more hair) is hairdressing in a back alley and nearsighted East L (Mark Cheng) is working as a mechanic of some sort. Big F tells the gang of his plan to rob delivery vans returning from China carrying corpses to be buried. The catch? The corpses are stuffed with laundered cash. Plucking a decrepit minibus from the junkyard, the gang dresses it up as a police Emergency Unit van, dress themselves up as cops and head off to the wilds of the New Territories to get rich. While this is happening, a vaguely futuristic Hong Kong is dealing with a decimating plague stemming from a cockroach farm explosion.

Up to this point Two Thumbs Up’s narrative exists simply in service to Ng, Yam et al in building the nearly incompetent gang’s dynamic, which for the most part is amusing to watch. Ng (Young and Dangerous, Exiled) is in classic Ng form; Tam (As the Light Goes Out) is particularly energetic as the vain, handsome member of the fraternity; and Yam (Sara, Sparrow) jettisons his elder statesman dignity for a spell, and it looks good on him. It’s in these planning-the-perfect-crime montages that writer-director Lau lays the brotherhood groundwork demanded of the cops-and-robbers genre. The gang has a knotty history (that’s never truly elucidated) and each has his personality tic, but at the core they’re decent guys just trying to make a living. When they finally get to the robbery on a winding, desolate stretch of road, it turns out Big F’s idea isn’t all that original. Another gang of thieves, far more brutal and equipped with real weapons, is carrying out the same plan. Big F and his boys may be criminals but they have standards. After a raging gun battle, a kidnapping and the rescue of a little girl, they throw in with Officer Tsui (Leo Ku) to stop the second gang. Lau essentially turns the traditional story on its head by dispensing with the usual anti-hero chic: we want the cop and his faux partners to win.

That does little to describe how truly bonkers Two Thumbs Up can be. Lau and cinematographer Pakie Chan go to great lengths to create a lurid, neon-drenched cityscape when they’re not exploiting the eerie quiet of the hills surrounding it. Irregular, off-kilter camera angles and images broken into comic book panels are accompanied by a soundtrack that swings from cartoonishly jaunty to Tom Waits-esque. The heightened visuals of the film don’t always complement its more generic thematic elements — Crazy B is afforded a chance to be a better father; Johnny T’s fears that he’s not valued by his friends are laid to rest; the idea that we are all able to find it in us to do the right thing — but like Lau's story that Kung Fu Jungle was based on, it has an almost palpable Hong Kong texture.  And there’s no denying Lau’s eye for gleefully over-the-top filmmaking. At a time when the local industry is becoming more removed from its DNA every day, it’s a welcome tonic.

Production company: Emperor Film Production, Sil-Metropole Organisation, Huace Film and TV, iQiyi

Cast: Francis Ng, Simon Yam, Leo Ku, Patrick Tam, Mark Cheng, Philip Keung, Christie Chen

Director: Lau Ho-leung

Screenwriter: Lau Ho-leung

Producer: Albert Lee, Ren Yue, Soi Cheang

Executive producer: Albert Yeung

Director of photography: Pakie Chan

Production designer: Alex Mok

Costume designer: Dora Ng

Editor: Chan Ki-hop

Music: Lam Kwan-fai, Julian Chan

World sales: Emperor Motion Pictures

No rating, 102 minutes