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Jiang Hu

(from left to right) Shawn Yue, Andy Lau, Wu Chien-Lien, Edison Chen and Jacky Cheung in Jiang Hu.
Chinese: 江湖  
Year: 2004  
Director: Wong Ching-Po  
Producer: Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Alan Tam Wing-Lun
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau, Shawn Yue, Edison Chen, Chapman To Man-Chat, Wu Chien-Lien, Eric Tsang Chi-Wai, Norman Tsui Siu-Keung, Miu Kiu-Wai, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Gia Lin, Xiao Hai, Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Lam Suet, Ha Ping, Tony Ho Wah-Chiu, Iris Wong Yat-Tung, Donna Chu Kit-Yi
The Skinny: Mega, mega-hyped triad drama delivers triads and drama, though with what success is debatable. Directed with portentous, "this means something" flair by newcomer Wong Ching-Po, Jiang Hu certainly tries to mean something. However, despite effective drama and some harrowing moments, the film is more generic than a standout genre film.
by Kozo:

Hong Kong movie packages don't get any bigger than Jiang Hu, which has both the fortune and the curse of arriving on the heels of the enormously popular Infernal Affairs films. Like those films, Jiang Hu is loaded to the gills with established megastars and rising faces, and is a new take on HK Cinema's celebrated triad genre. Young director Wong Ching-Po (Fu Bo) was given a big push by producer Eric Tsang and co-presenters Andy Lau and Alan Tam, and their faith shows some initial promise. Jiang Hu's stellar look and feel, and its acknowledgement of accepted triad genre themes, seem to promise something exciting and possibly even new. However, if you shoot too high, it becomes harder to hit your target. While possessing effective triad drama, Jiang Hu doesn't really do more than the umpteen triad dramas that came before it. Hell, sometimes it even seems to do less.

Andy Lau is Hung Yan-Chau, a righteous crime boss who seems set for the night of his life. On one hand, his wife Emily (the long-missed Wu Chien-Lien), has just given birth to the couple's first child. On the other hand, there's a looming hit on Hung, which may be on the orders of one (or perhaps all) of Hung's lieutenants (Eric Tsang, Tsui Siu-Keung and Miu Kiu-Wai). However, the greatest threat may yet be Hung's right-hand man and best pal, Lefty (Jacky Cheung with nifty hair extensions), who threatens to take care of Hung's problems and even send him packing to New Zealand—that is, if Lefty has his way. Still, Hung wasn't born yesterday; clearly something's afoot, and he has his own cards to play. Meanwhile, young triad Yik (Shawn Yue) is angling to draw the plum hit assignment, and his best pal Turbo (Edison Chen) backs him up.

For plot, Jiang Hu scores low, as it's a genre tale that bears no original storylines. The young triad looking to make his name is a fixture of many other triad films (killing a rival triad leader is how Chan Ho-Nam began his rise to the top in the Young and Dangerous films), as is the tale of an older gang boss facing his possible extinction (the 2000 film Jiang Hu - the Triad Zone featured an almost satirical take on that plot). However, it should be clear that Jiang Hu is all about HOW it handles these familiar genre elements. Great attention is spent on the film's stylish look and feel, and even the title ("Jiang Hu" is loosely translated as "the underworld" and has been featured in more triad film titles than one can count) screams ultimate genre meaning. Director Wong Ching-Po's copious usage of slow-motion, rain-drenched streets, and portentous glances between actors seems to spell genre with an eye on art. It's like he's assembling all the known elements in order to spin something different and new.

Does he? Well, partially. While the promise of more seems to exist at many points in Jiang Hu, it never fully materializes. The subplots themselves have their own inherent drama. After the initial setup, Hung and Lefty retreat to their personal restaurant to share a meal alone. The two talk about the evening's various plot threads, and what comes out is their difference in ideology and what makes one of them an ideal gang boss and the other one not. The themes of loyalty, betrayal, and righteousness are discussed by the two characters with deft verbal precision, and some of the concurrent action is tense and effective. While Hung and Lefty talk things through, Lefty's lieutenant Shing (Gordon Lam) is threatening whole familes—including the kids. Likewise, Yik and Turbo are encountering their smaller conflicts. Yik is handed prostitute Yoyo (Gia Lin), who's supposed to be his consolation prize in case he gets killed on assignment, but he's more intent on securing the girl's future than bedding her. Turbo wants his pal to succeed in the underworld, and is even willing to give up his own life to insure such a thing. This is all legitimate drama, and the very guts of many triad movies. That Jiang Hu includes these things is both effective and necessary.

What the above drama doesn't do, however, is make the film any better than the many triad films before it. Sure, Jiang Hu is home to many cool filmmaking flourishes, i.e., a palpable cinematic atmosphere and abundance of drama-heightening slow motion. However, the filmmakers don't do much more than assemble the noted genre elements and give them slick packaging. Infernal Affairs could be accused of the same thing: taking an overdone genre and jazzing it up, but the film had other surprising positives. Infernal Affairs featured exemplary acting and emotion, and a well-developed story that played out in a gripping fashion. Jiang Hu's story isn't necessarily worse than Infernal Affairs', but it doesn't deliver on the tension or emotion. Some moments manage some decent emotion, but when you consider that a large part of the film is Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung sitting around in a restaurant talking, it's no surprise that a little yawning could occur. Sure, the restaurant is brilliantly decorated, and Lau and Cheung have cool hairstyles and tough demeanor, but really, they're just sitting there talking. Even two hours of DeNiro and Pacino yakking away in a single restaurant might not be that engaging.

Even more, the film can't even make it to two hours. Jiang Hu clocks in at less than ninety minutes, and this is already with tons of slow-motion and austere long takes in single locations. That all of this is crammed into less than ninety minutes seems to beg the question: what exactly happened in this movie? Apparently, the answer is not a lot at all. There are occasional gripping moments, but they don't seem to occur at the most pivotal of times, and even the climactic gangfight in the streets is just one long slow-motion flailing with a predetermined ending. The actors themselves show charisma (Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung do well, though their hairstyles upstage them) and even promise (Shawn Yue shows intensity, and Edison Chen manages to make a compelling second banana), but in the end it may not be enough. When the finale of the film rolls around, it seems that Jiang Hu's biggest conceit is a narrative twist which proves surprising only because the filmmakers worked overtime to disguise it until the very last second. The twist itself proves to be no big deal, except it gives us a "Oh, that makes sense" feeling, which isn't something that necessarily signals quality filmmaking.

Jiang Hu isn't really a bad film, and it hits its marks fairly efficiently. However, if you apply a sense of scale, the film can only be seen as a large disappointment. When you assemble almost the entire cast of Infernal Affairs, apply slick filmmaking visuals and big-ticket marketing, and then come up with only a better-produced version of your standard triad plotting, you haven't really lived up to your potential. Maybe it seems unfair to judge movies based on their scale, but the resources provided here seemed to indicate that more would be happening than actually did. As it is, Jiang Hu lacks that intangible quality that turns screenplays from collections of words and described visuals into something that simply leaps from the page, onto the bigscreen, then back down to the audience. That quality is not something that can be easily described, and it's not easy to come by either. However, for a film to become more than a generic package that's just another movie at the multiplex, that quality is absolutely necessary. What Jiang Hu ultimately lacks is spark. (Kozo 2004)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Laser
2-Disc Set
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
"Making of" featurette, music video, image gallery, NG footage, deleted scenes

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