12:00 - 24th October 2015, by David West

Gangster Payday

Brother Ghost (Anthony Wong) is an aging Triad boss whose gang has seen better days. Faced with the death of his mother, who never approved of his criminal lifestyle, Ghost is content running karaoke bars and massage parlours, and refuses to have anything to do with the more lucrative Triad activities like drug dealing. Mei (Charlene Choi) has inherited her late father’s teahouse, but is struggling to keep it afloat. After he saves her from a group of thugs who work for rival Triad boss Bill (Patrick Keung), Ghost falls for Mei and begins to try to woo her. But she is already smitten with his younger, better looking lieutenant Leung (Wong You-Nam).

Lee Po-Cheung’s Gangster Payday is first and foremost a romantic comedy, rather than a gritty gangland thriller. Director Lee brings a very light touch to the proceedings, and if anything the film wants for a sense of gravitas. Ghost is the sort of loveable Triad found only in the movies, a kind hearted rogue who is still good friends with his glamorous ex-wife Pui (Carrie Ng) and whose gang never seems to do much of anything. They mostly loiter around either the karaoke bar, the massage parlour, or Mei’s teahouse.

Two of Ghost’s senior brothers are played by Hong Kong movie veterans known for their real life links to the Triads – Chan Wai-Man and Ng Chi-Hung – but apart from one all too brief fight scene towards the end of the film, they are sadly underused here.

As Leung, Wong You-Nam has precious little to do either. Mostly the script requires him to look handsome and occasionally wistful. Al Pacino in The Godfather it is not. Charlene Choi brings a little pluckiness to Mei, but it’s Anthony Wong whose charisma carries the whole movie. Fortunately, Wong is an immensely likeable and engaging presence on the screen, but it would make the film stronger if he had someone capable of matching him and sparking off his energy. His scenes with Choi are gently comic, where they really ought to be sharper and snappier, like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in anything they did together. The comedy may be lightweight, but it’s more convincing than the half-baked attempt to switch gears for the showdown between Ghost and Bill in the final act. Likewise, the pathos of the unrequited love between Leung and Mei fails to make much of an impression, mainly due to the lack of depth in Leung’s characterisation and Wong’s limp performance.

The script suggests that the age of the Triads is fast fading, and Ghost frequently talks about the fact that there’s no money to be made as a gangster anymore – all the serious dough in Hong Kong is in real estate. As well as creating a sense of the passing of an era, this contributes to the humour, as the gangsters turn their hands to baking pineapple buns and working in Mei’s humble teahouse. Ah, bless.

With many Hong Kong filmmakers focusing their efforts on appealing to the colossal Mainland audience, it’s refreshing to see a movie that expresses such a strong local identity and sensibility. The always reliable Anthony Wong is excellent, but Gangster Payday is undercut by an insubstantial screenplay that leaves too many of its cast of industry veterans twiddling their thumbs.
SCORE: 3/5
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