Gangster Payday (Da cha fan)

Hong Kong (2014) Dir. Lee Po-Cheung

The gangster film has been a popular staple for Hong Kong cinema over the past few decades but rarely has it been the subject of a comedy, something Lee Po-Cheung, in his second film as director, has chosen to address.

Brother Ghost (Anthony Wong) is that rare creature – an honourable gangster, who avoids drugs, killings and he like preferring to concentrate on his legit karaoke club. One of his younger henchmen Leung (Wong Yau-Nam) meets Mei (Charlene Choi) the delivery girl and daughter of the owner of a small teahouse which is suffering from slow business while her father is ill, and the pair strike up a flirty friendship via text. On the same day Mei’s father dies, Ghost’s buries his mother, stopping off at the teahouse afterwards.

Impressed by Mei’s kindness after his men cause a stir Ghost takes a shine to the plucky young lass and offers to help reverse the fortunes of the café. Just as things start to get back on track, Ghost’s cousin and rival gang leader Brother Bill (Keung Ho-Man) shows up offering to buy the teahouse to make way for a property development plan he is backing. Since Ghost bought the lease he tells Bill no deal, leaving Bill, who is far less scrupulous than Ghost, to play dirty.

The first part of the plot may sound like the basis for a light comedy but the second part, which is barely touched upon for most of the first hour brings with it a major shift towards the darker side. In one simple unexpected moment the change literally feels like a black veil has been cast over the screen. The fact it comes from what is a rather clichéd set-up makes it all the more effective and reminds us that less is more.

With Stephen Chow having taken a more absurdist approach to lampooning gangster behaviour in Kung Fu Hustle, it seems Lee Po-Cheung’s decision to play it a bit safer not only avoids the burden of inviting damaging comparisons but makes for a smoother transition in the latter half. This also allows for a genuine sense of emotional investment in and attachment to the characters form once the drama aspect takes effect.

The strokes are subtle but the key element of Ghost chasing after Mei is that she is out of his league, even though he has shallow dolly birds draping themselves all over him at his karaoke club. Mei is the complete opposite and while she finds Ghost charming, funny and helpful, has no designs for him, telling him on a boozy night out that she seems Ghost more as a father figure she can lean on.

It’s admittedly not much of a love triangle as Leung does little to make his feelings known to Mei while understandably keeping it from his boss. Therefore there are none of the typical comedic shenanigans of the youngster sneaking about behind Ghost’s back, or a complicated double date scenario and other similarly ripe fodder for our amusement. But we are treated to Ghost with his Mohawk-esque hair cut, bright coloured trendy attire and youthful outlook to provide a snigger at his expense.

Ghosts’s loyal highest-ranking followers Brother 2 (Chan Wai-man) and Uncle B (Ng Chi-hung) are on hand for more comic relief as they struggle to make the perfect Pineapple bun or slap around a few nerds to exert their pseudo authority. All this changes in the second half but as grizzled veterans they prove their mettle when the chips are down and Ghost needs them the most.

In a similar vein to martial arts homage Gallants in which a number of old time stars of the genre returned to play older fighters, Lee has cast some veterans of the Triad film oeuvre, including leading man Anthony Wong, who is typically superb here, to fill the roles of the elder gang members, which should make for a nice touch for long time Hong Kong film fans. But with an absence of younger characters for them to symbolically pass the torch too, it only works as bit of fun.

There is a certain irony about the casting of the adorable Charlene Choi as Mei in a film which deals as one of its themes the notion of trying to act beneath your age as Ghost does. This is not an attack on Choi who is perky, energetic, amusing and provides the emotional centre of the film but she is 33 yet still could pass for 21. Even in this adult role Choi dresses and acts in a similar style to the roles she was trapped in for over a decade.

Conversely veteran Carrie Ng, star of many Cat III thrillers such as Naked Killer, proves she still has it as a glamour queen and shows off a wonderfully droll comic bent as Ghost’s ex-wife Pui, their awkward dinner party being a highlight of the film. Ng’s role is a small a fate which also befalls the chief antagonist Bill, but Keung Ho-Man gives it his all to make bill seem nasty enough. Unfortunately as Leung, Wong Yau-Nam is limited to looking forlornly as Ghost usurps his wooing as Mei.

Whether Lee Po-Cheung should have committed himself to making either a straight comedy or a straight thriller is a rather moot point, demonstrating as he does a keen aptitude for both. This makes for an earnest and well meaning film which really could have taken more chances with the scope of both directions – a little more sharper and outrageous humour and a taut, more hard hitting visceral approach to the drama.

As it stands, Gangster Payday doesn’t leap out as essential or memorable viewing but is an amiable enough 95 minute distraction. It succeeds largely through the charm of the cast and the solid directing, capturing the spirit and very essence of the genres it is respectfully toying with.