One Nite in Mongkok (2004)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-01-02
Summary: Excellent crime drama
“Pay me a bit more so I feel better,” said the hooker Dan Dan, played by Cecilia Cheung, summarizing just about everything this “One Nite in Mongkok” has to say about life in Hong Kong in the 21st century. Liu, in a brilliantly odious performance by Lam Suet, conveys the same feeling when he tells a caller inquiring about having someone killed that “Money makes anything possible”. While they two of them—the immigrant prostitute and the well-heeled fixer—don’t seem to be in the same universe, the movie makes it clear early on that both of them as well as the rest of the characters are trapped in the urban jungle of Hong Kong. And the most dangerous part of that jungle is Mongkok. While money can act as a temporary cushion against the blows of life in Mongkok it is only a temporary respite—no one gets out unharmed and not many get out alive.

Dan Dan further drives home this loathing of the city when she twice asks why the SAR is called “Fragrant Harbor” when the air stinks so badly. The second time is the last line of the movie, when she is standing in line at Immigration telling the officers that she doesn’t plan to return. This is followed by a caption, dripping in irony, that the then Crown Colony was called Fragrant Harbor because it was a port that shipped incense to the West. This juxtaposition of disgusted rhetorical question with disingenuous, matter of fact answer points to a number of statements, some contradictory that the film might be making:

>>The entire concept of Hong Kong, even as a Special Administrative District of the People’s Republic, is a colonial anachronism that no longer has any relevance;

>>The degrading, crime-ridden existence that characterizes life in mega-cities like Hong Kong is caused by the cities as such and is unavoidable—it is as much a part of city life as its name;

>>To survive in Hong Kong it is necessary to adopt a persona, a protective shell. The cops must pretend to enforce the law, the prostitute must pretend to like her customers--—what something is named has no affect on what it actually is;

>>No matter what it is called or who rules it, Hong Kong will continue to survive and prosper, even if outsiders can’t understand it.

Or it could be a combination of any of the above or something else entirely. Another juxtaposition, this of images instead of words, makes it clear that it is up to the audience to make their own choice. This contrast is of two identical shots of the Hong Kong skyline. One is shrouded in smog, colored grey, black and white—it has the caption concerning the name “Fragrant Harbor” beneath it and looks ugly and forbidding. The other shot, which occurs earlier in the film, features fireworks bursting above the buildings which are bathed in color and light, a delightful, inviting shot. So, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

There is much to like about “One Nite in Mongkok, beginning with Daniel Wu’s characterization of Lin Lai Fu, the not completely bumpkinish hitman from a squalid village in the PRC. Wu reminds me of a young Michael Caine—especially early on in the movie while he was still wearing his horn rimmed glasses, he seemed to be channeling Caine as Harry Palmer in “The Icpress File”. One of Caine’s most effective characteristics is his stillness, an ability to convey a lot with very little effort or even movement. Wu is able to do this as well, moving through the teeming warrens of the city without doing much but seeming to take in everything that is happening around him. This was an outstanding if understated performance.

Lam Suet could not have been better as the repellent yet somehow likeable Liu. Objectively Liu is a complete scoundrel, willing to recruit young men from his village on the mainland as hired killers and then abandon them to their fate—the most recent one got a sentence of 22 years. He is a deadly go-between loyal only to himself, available to arrange the murder of someone from any side of a gang war. He even deals in counterfeit luxury goods and cheats others who do so, being yelled at for the shoddy work on the logos of the last batch of Louis Vuitton handbags. Part of the movie could be used as a Public Service Announcement for the Chinese Quality Brands Protection Committee, showing the thuggishness and criminal connections of those who manufacture and sell pirated goods.

But even though Liu lives a disgusting life, Lam Suet still makes him a character we find it difficult to hate. Part of this comes from the excellent script, of course—Liu is a cur but he loves his seemingly unlovable wife and is as much a victim of Mongkok as anyone. He is victimized by the police who know that since he operates outside of the protection of the triads they can threaten him with impunity, rough him up as much as they want and humiliate him in front of friends and enemies alike. Ultimately the only characters we really care about are Liu, Lin Lai Fu and Dan Dan.

Dan Dan is not a hooker with a heart of gold. She is a hooker with an upbeat attitude and a realistic, if not enthusiastic, view of her profession. She hates what she does but is from the same poor village as Liu and Lin and is one of fourteen in her family. Making $8,000 in three weeks at $130 a trick—her cut after the pimp and room are paid for—she obviously pays very dearly for her family loyalty. One of the few upbeat moments in the film comes at the very end when the audience realizes that Dan Dan really won’t be returning to Hong Kong—or if so, at not as a Mongkok prostitute.

The portrayal of prostitutes in movies is a part of how the image of the prostitute functions as part of society as a whole. In Hollywood movies the scarlet woman must almost always come to a bad (or at least extremely ironic) end. Some of the iconic roles, taking one per decade, include Donna Reed in “From Here to Eternity”, Elizabeth Taylor in “Butterfield 8”, Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver”, Jennifer Jason Leigh “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and Elizabeth Shue “Leaving Las Vegas”. These actresses not only played the role as written but also were part of the underlying moral subtext of the times. This seemed to be less the case with Cecilia Cheung’s role—the life of a prostitute wasn’t sugar coated (as in, for example, “Pretty Woman” or “Trading Places”) but shown to be a tough, dangerous and demeaning way to make money. Dan Dan’s reaction to the first confrontation with Walter, a most memorably thuggish Chan Mong-Wa, is very telling. She is done for the day—actually as we find out later, is done for her current three week stay in Hong Kong—and just wants to leave. Neither she nor the audience is surprised when Walter starts slapping her around—this is just part of the cost of doing business and isn’t anything remarkable. Cecilia Cheung is just slightly too elegant in the hair and makeup department for this role, although she does an excellent job. But she is a bit of a swan compared to almost all of the other working girls, who are less stylish birds. She has a more luridly written role than does Lin and comes across very well as a person who is being pulled in several directions at the same time.

Unlike other recent Hong Kong police dramas, the cops in this movie have no real resonance—the audience simply doesn’t care about them in the same way they do about the criminals. Officer Milo, the depressed squad leader and Brandon, the headstrong rookie are the only cop characters with any real screen time but they remain no more than types. Even Shitty Kong, the cop turned drug addicted informer, has more of an individual identity than Milo and his bunch.

There are a few direct quotes from other movies, most memorably when Lin, having been brutally beaten by Walter and his gang, follows them into the street, recovers his gun and shoots Walter in the hand. He holds up his bloody, deformed stump of a hand and stares at it in the same way that the “The John” did in “Taxi Driver”, although not in extreme close up.

“One Nite in Mongkok” has a few loose ends and one gaping hole in the plot but nothing that degrades the overall impact of this fine film.

Reviewer Score: 9