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To Live and Die in Mongkok
Nick Cheung and Monica Mok in To Live and Die in Mongkok

Nick Cheung and Monica Mok in To Live and Die in Mongkok.
Chinese: 旺角監獄  
Year: 2009  
  Director: Wong Jing, Billy Chung Siu-Hung
Producer: Wong Jing  
Writer: Wong Jing  
  Cast: Nick Cheung Ka-Fai, Monica Mok, Bau Hei-Jing, Liu Kai-Chi, Natalie Meng Yao, Chan Lai-Wun, Wong Jing, Willie Wai Kar-Hung, Patrick Tam Yiu-Man, Tang Tak-Po, Samuel Leung Cheuk-Moon, Jeffrey Chow Chun-Fai, Roderick Lam Chung-Kei, Ng Chi-Hung
  The Skinny: To Live and Die in Mongkok has lots of award-winning actors, but the lack of award-winning filmmakers drags things down considerably. A standard, passable genre entry that fills time but doesn't do much else. It goes without saying that the cast has certainly done better work.
by Kozo:

When you cast five award-winning actors and trumpet it in your marketing, you better back it up with a good film. To Live and Die in Mongkok does the talking but can't do the walking, and unfortunately proves to be little more than your standard genre affair. The stars include all the acting award winners (Nick Cheung, Bau Hei-Jing, Liu Kai-Chi and Chan Wai-Lun) from last year's Hong Kong film awards, plus a former Best Supporting Actor winner (Patrick Tam Yiu-Man) and two 2008 nominees (Monica Mok and Juno Leung) for Best New Artist. The story mines tried-and-true genre themes, contains some triad hacking and slashing, and even possesses a few surprising and clever bits. With all the above going for it, why isn't this a standout motion picture? Maybe because the directors are Wong Jing and Billy Chung.

Nick Cheung stars as Fai, a legendary triad who once slaughtered a bunch of people before getting shot in the back and sent to prison. Years later, he's released, but life outside is not what he once knew. His former pal Porky (Willie Wai) is due for promotion to the head of the triad, and is encountering interference from a smarmy rival (Patrick Tam). Porky could use Fai's support, but instead of asking him directly, he sends a couple of lackeys (Juno Leung and Samuel Leung) to treat him to dinner and some spa time. Meanwhile, Porky forcibly seeks sexual favors from mainland prostitute Pamela (Monica Mok) and her mentally challenged sister Penny (Natalie Meng). Porky's irresponsibility doesn't end there; besides being annoyingly horny, Porky is rude, temperamental and slovenly, and lacks the charisma of a future gang boss. One wonders why anyone would follow such a lout, but Wong Jing wrote and directed, so somehow it must make sense.

There's another wrinkle: Fai has mental issues, having developed multiple personalities from his years in the joint. Most of the time he's gentle and kind, but lingering in the background is his former firey personality, who he sees as an imaginary buddy (Tang Tak-Po) who looks just like his younger self and goes by the name "Fai Jr." Since nobody but Fai can see Fai Jr., it looks like Fai is talking to himself, but that doesn't stop the gang from trying to exploit his hero status, nor does it stop Pamela from viewing Fai in a romantic light. Pamela and her sister both get on Porky's bad side, but Fai steps in and becomes their benefactor, leading to an odd family dynamic. Meanwhile, Fai tries to reconnect with his mother (Bau Hei-Jing), who's suffering from dementia, making her the third person in the film to suffer from a mental malady. Rounding out the characters is cop Gunner Yu (Liu Kai-Chi), who isn't mentally damaged but may as well be because he overacts instead of behaving normally.

If there's a strong narrative line in To Live and Die in Mongkok, then Wong Jing and Billy Chung can't seem to tell the audience what it is. There's a lot going on in the screenplay, and each actor is given moments to take the spotlight. Of them all, Bau Hei-Jing makes the strongest impression, showing sympathy and subtlety as Fai’s suffering mother. Liu Kai-Chi lays it on thick, and both Monica Mok and (surprise!) Natalie Meng do fine, but Nick Cheung is surprisingly not that effective. The part gives him a chance to act both dopey and dangerous, but most of the time we get dopey, since the dangerous parts of Fai's character are usually performed by young Tang Tak-Po. There are other levels to Fai; he's always dreaming that he's "trapped" in Mongkok – a reference to his status as a can't-escape-the-life triad – and having just left prison, he's a bit confused. Wong Jing even pens some clever dialogue where Fai uses the downfall of Hong Kong movies as a reference point for his culture shock. Unfortunately, the dialogue and Cheung's performance both lack subtlety. Cheung's strength as an actor seems to be his intensity or inner emotion, but the directors don't capture that, instead letting dialogue or obvious metaphor to the job for him.

Speaking of obvious metaphor, the whole "trapped in Mongkok" thing is a fine idea, but Wong Jing presents it in a cheesy way. Instead of seeing the theme reinforced through character and action, Wong has Fai daydream about an imaginary guard (Roderick Lam) and a CGI fence that prevent him from walking down Nathan Road to a neighboring district. Fai's "trapped" status represents his inability to escape the triad, but more action and less obvious telling would have given the theme more resonance. Also unsuccessful is the film's stylistic excess, consisting of distracting editing and a jittery handheld camera that would put Jason Bourne to shame. The nausea-inducing camera movement does give the proceedings an initial jolt, but the film seldom creates the suspense or immersion that would justify such showy style. In the end, the filmmaking style seems just like the rest of the movie, familiar and transparent.

Not that To Live and Die in Mongkok is that bad. It's not, and is actually a fairly average gang film that would have played pretty well during the late nineties. Back then, movies like this were a dime a dozen, with some standouts among the numerous genre entries. For an audience unfamiliar or uncaring of cliches or accomplished narratives, this film can fill ninety minutes passably. However, when considered relative to its "Four Best Actors in One Film!" advertising or its self-anointed classification as "Wong Jing's first cult film", To Live and Die in Mongkok doesn't measure up. Co-director Billy Chung's previous B-movie Hong Kong Bronx was trashier and perhaps crappier but it better approximated that entertaining nobody-is-safe Hong Kong Cinema vibe than To Live and Die in Mongkok does. By all accounts, they tried to make this a quality film. However, they went it about it the wrong way, and what ends up on the screen falls short. (Kozo 2009)

  Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Joy Sales
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
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