Robbery (Lou Lap)

Hong Kong (2016) Dir. Fire Lee

I might have said this before but it bears repeating – Hong Kong comedies are strange beasts which don’t always translate well outside of Asia (unless you are Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow). One film unlikely to buck this trend is surreal black comedy Robbery.

Lau Kin-Ping (Derek Tsang) a 32-year old self-confessed loser re-evaluates his life after witnessing the double suicide of a newlywed couple. To earn enough money to leave home, Ping gets a job in a 24-hour convenience shop called Exceed, run by unctuous manager Fat Boss (Lam Suet) and working alongside perky assistant Mabel (J. Arie).

A customer, known hereafter as Grandpa (Stanley Fung), demands a refund for the half-eaten sandwich he just bought. Fat Boss refuses, thinking Grandpa is pulling a fast one, so Grandpa stabs Fat Boss in the neck with a pair of scissors then holds everyone hostage, kicking off a night of surreal events involving a collection of oddball characters.

Robbery’s black comedy credentials are obvious from the start yet its satirical element might not be so easy to discern, despite an assertive speech during the denouement as to what the message is (or might be). Also troublesome is that much of the apparent satire is served with a huge dose of bawdy lowbrow humour – The League Of Gentlemen this isn’t.

It is also very violent, making many action thrillers look like Disney films in comparison – there is dark, gallows humour and there is extreme gore that feels extraneous and gratuitous, and depending on your tolerance or stomach for such things, this could be the deal breaker in enjoying what is offered here. Then again, the offbeat narrative and abstract development might prove equally distracting.

Predicting where the story is heading is never easy as the script from Lee, Frankie Tam and He Xin is rife with deliberate misdirection and vital tidbits disguised as frippery. For example, Ping notes that Bruce Lee died aged 32, the same age Ping is now, which bears fruit later on. Working at Exceed was supposed to be Ping turning his life around, yet he and Mabel spend their shift shaking up drinks and stabbing packs of condoms with pins.

When Grandpa reveals himself to be a former criminal Fat Boss laughs at him prior to being stabbed – although Grandpa had to buy the scissors from Fat Boss first before using them! This humour works best, except it is used sporadically; an inspired example sees a young boy walking in during a stand-off to buy a toy figure, halting the gunplay until he leaves and resuming where the left off, in a scene right out of Month Python.

However, undercover cop Yan (Philip Keung) has chronic diarrhoea beginning a running gag of him needing to excuse himself, complete with gross sound effects accompanying his anal excavations. The tackiness continues when the camera focuses on a pair of big breasts entering the shop, bursting out of a cheerleader’s outfit. The owner is Anita (Anita Chui), who of course is looking to buy some condoms.

This shameless fan service is where the satire may or may not be in play; for the most part Anita is ogled, fondled and abused eye candy yet there is a wonderfully sly visual gag that puts this exploitation in its place. There is more to Anita’s character than this however, but the lascivious and misogynistic reason for her sexy facade is too ridiculous even for a dark comedy, but again that may be the joke.

Completing the line-up of midnight hostages is Big Boss (Eric Kwok), a smooth operator and notorious gangster with a connection to Anita; mad, suicidal one-armed bomber Kwong (Ken Lo) who arrives and departs leaving an unwelcome gift behind; and Chevis (Edward Ma), Mabel’s dapper boyfriend whose big secret he’s been hiding from her is publicly exposed with devastating consequences.

If the ultimate message about being a small fry in a world of big potatoes is lost on western viewers, the political subtext will hardly register at all. Presumably, a subtle address on Hong Kong coming under the purview of China’s rule, the conduit for this is the exorbitant prices Fat Boss charges and the equally unreasonable reimbursement he demands from the others for the damage to the shop.

But don’t worry if this doesn’t sink in, the sillier comic moments are enough to keep us entertained, even if we don’t always understand their destination. When things detour into surreal territory, it’s not the humour but the giddy, psychedelic presentation that obscures the jocular intent. Suffusing the images with a slightly dampened colour palette with bursts of mood creating hues doesn’t suggest comedy at all, sublimation the grisly violence emphatically reaffirms with unapologetic, graphic glee.

For a story that tries to end on a hopeful note, the nihilism it propagates overwhelming incurs the opposite feeling from the audience if we are to take the political allusion at face value. This leaves us uncertain about our feelings for central protagonist Ping; he goes on a journey of sorts but one that is tragically elliptical, so why should we care? This is a problem even Derek Tsang’s laconic comedic performance sadly can’t solve.   

Although playing to type, Lam Suet deserves kudos for effortlessly making scissors in the neck look like a fashion trend. Lone females Anita Chui and J. Arie aren’t stretched beyond their assigned tropes, something the affects seedier characters like Big Boss too, everyone brings enough to rise above them; Eric Kwok could be an Asian Robert Downey Jr. while Philip Keung’s febrile presence is matched by Stanley Fung’s veteran gravitas.

It’s difficult to sum up my feelings for Robbery when they remain so unclear – there is a lot about it I liked but a lot I didn’t. It was certainly no crime for me to sit through this film but others may not be so captivated by it. Bold, inventive but too esoteric for its own good.