The Counterfeiter aka Project Gutenberg (Mou seung)

China/Hong Kong (2018) Dir. Felix Chong

If a picture paints a thousand words, films wouldn’t need to be two hours long. As much as an image can tell a story, there is always need for nuance, detail, and clarification as the eye can miss so much from looking too hard and too long at what is in front of them – i.e. the truth.

Skilled but unambitious painter Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) is being extradited from a Thai prison where he is charged for murder to Hong Kong, because of his connection with a counterfeit ring. Lee Man protests his innocence, claiming he was working for a man named Painter, but he refuses to say any more. Lee Man’s ex-partner, artist Yuen Man (Zhang Jingchu), arrives at the police station to barter Lee Man’s bail in exchange for his cooperation.

The deal agreed, Lee Man tells Chief Inspector Ho (Catherine Chow) his story – how he was a struggling painter capable of copying artwork exactly, discovered by a man named Ng Fuk Sang (Chow Yun Fat) to join his gang of counterfeiters to create a flawless replica of the new US dollar bill. But Lee Man’s conscience clashes with Painter’s ruthlessness and their relationship becomes strained.

Known mostly for his award winning writing and directing partnership with Alan Mak, Felix Chong goes it alone for only the second time with The Counterfeiter, a sinuous, insightful, and handsomely shot crime thriller Chong and Mak are noted for. Need I remind anyone they were the writers of the Infernal Affairs trilogy among others, a pedigree they themselves aspire to replicate, let alone other screenwriters.

When one is established within a certain genre, breaking away from it often yields mixed results, as Fong and Mak discovered with the swordplay film The Lost Bladesman, so the alternative is to stay with what you know and try to come up with something new every time. Arguments will rage if this is just another twisty police thriller or a fresh coat of paint (pardon the pun) both are valid, as is the film’s quality.    

Lee Man’s credentials as a convincing forger are established in a unique way during the opening sequence set in prison. A crooked guard charges 10 dollars to smuggle out mail which Lee man doesn’t have, the proof being how he draws his own airmail stamp which, as we find out in the film’s climax, passed muster and actually got delivered! And this was achieved using crude instruments too!

Now in custody of the Hong Kong police, Lee Man is in the spotlight with a litany of DNA evidence to link him to the murders which, naturally, he claims are fake. Under the influence of Yuen Man, whose fiancée was killed by Painter, Lee Man recounts his story, revealing he and Yuen Man were a couple of unsuccessful artists living in Vancouver, though her ambitions were bigger than his.

Money being tight, Lee Man accepts a forgery job behind Yuen Man’s back, whilst she champions his art at her own exhibition against the advice of her agent. At the exhibition Painter shows up and criticises Lee Man’s art and is kicked out by Yuen Man – except this was a ruse to get Lee Man out and on board with his team, including plate maker Ng Yam (Liu Kai-chi), an employee of Painter’s father.

Here is where the film earns it points outside of the engrossing plot in going into great depth of the forgery process. Presumably the result of extensive research, Fong affords us a blow-by blow look at the various stages of getting the replicas precise, the equipment needed for this, and even a bit of science in getting the correct colour hues as well as making a credible watermark. It really is fascinating stuff.

Obviously, a big concern is whether any wannabe criminals are watching and think they know have the basics on record to start their own business, but that is what the plot is there for – to remind us crime doesn’t pay, real money or not. Lee Man’s reluctance to involve himself in the violent activities Painter relishes in causes divisions in the ranks; Painter says Lee Man is free to leave anytime but knows he won’t, but the more Lee Man objects, the more unhinged Painter becomes.

A fateful trip to Thailand which turns out to be a revenge mission for Painter not only has Chong allow star Chow Yun Fat relive his John Woo days by indulging in an explosive gun battle, but also introduces a new figure into Lee Man’s life, Thai counterfeit expert Ng Sau-ching (Joyce Feng). I can’t say too much about her for spoiler reasons except that Sau-ching’s low-key arrival pays off in a big way.

Blessed with a big budget, Chong really goes for broke with the scale and ambition, including plenty of location shooting, but as an experienced hand Chong’s confidence shines through, keeping the flow moving across tonal shifts and genre staples. Whether it is a crime caper, police investigation, domestic drama, or action thriller, the pieces fall into place with a steady and assured sense of rhythm.

Chow Yun Fat appears to have fun as Painter, taking him from charismatic smoothy to gutsy anti-hero and finally deranged sociopath. Aaron Kwok charters a similar journey for Lee Man, but his humanity remains his anchor to prevent his greed from ruining him but the corrupt edges are still there. Zhang Jingchu is a favourite of mine so it’s great to see her again, and despite comparatively less screen time, is the complex and emotional glue of the tale as Yuen Man.

Deliriously adventurous but never too hokey, The Counterfeiter might be a genre flick by numbers but it deliver top-notch entertainment. Smartly written, deftly executed, and very well made, it doesn’t escape all conventions, many of which Chong presumably invented with Mak, therefore is still the genuine article. It may not be art but I know I like it.