EXPECTATIONS: A fun Hong Kong take on the Tokusatsu genre marred by Wong Ching-po’s pretentious direction.
REVIEW: Director Wong Ching-po has always been a filmmaker that has disappointed me, since he has so much potential. He can get great performances from his actors, but it is his pretentious direction that turns his films into tedium. After seeing three pretentious crime films of his (Jiang Hu, Mob Sister and Revenge: A Love Story) that were parts compelling and parts laughably overwrought, Wong takes a change of pace and came out with Let’s Go!, a crime film that has elements of tokusatsu (meaning special FX stories in Japan i.e. Power Rangers) filmed within settings of the Hong Kong Housing Commission. With a cast filled with young and veteran talent and a weird premise, does Wong Ching-po break his curse of making pretentious films after another?
Juno Mak stars as Siu Sheung, a delivery boy at a noodle shop who loves with his mother (Pat Ha) in a house estate in crime-ridden Kowloon. When he was a young boy, he had always enjoyed time with his father, watching the Cantonese-dubbed version of a Japanese anime, Space Emperor God Sigma, and singing along to the opening theme of the anime, sung by the late Hong Kong actor/singer/all-round superstar Leslie Cheung. But all of that came to a sudden stop as his father was killed while trying to apprehend a bank robber and Siu Sheung has been living his life aimlessly ever since. Inspired by the themes of the anime and his father’s last words, Siu Sheung tries to bring justice to the community, alongside his friend, Big Bird (Wen Chao). Meanwhile, Shing (Gordon Lam) a gangster witnesses Siu Sheung’s fighting skills and hires him for security detail in the Matsumoto Syndicate, run by Boss Hon Yu (Jimmy Wang Yu). Having no choice but to join due to financial difficulties, he takes the job and becomes a bodyguard for Hon Yu’s daughter, Annie (Stephy Tang). But a major event between Shing and Hon Yu takes place and Siu Sheung has to take action to protect the people he loves and to stop evil to restore peace to the community.
Judging by the story, it seems like nothing yet it is also everything Wong Ching-po has done before. All the crime elements that he is usually associated in are there, but the comedic elements and tokusatsu elements are nothing he has every dealt with before. But to my great pleasure, Wong has pulled off the genre mix in a fun, if not completely satisfying manner. It becomes patently obvious that Let’s Go! is more of a personal project for Wong, than it is a business one. First of all, setting the film entirely in Hong Kong (without any China association) adds to the identity of the film, as well as nostalgia factor of how Hong Kong is within the working class. Nostalgia levels are also up through the roof with the use of the Cantonese version of Space Emperor God Sigma, complete with the Leslie Cheung theme. Not only is it used effectively in the opening/end credits, it conveys the overriding theme of justice and harmony in an effective, if quite cheesy manner.
Having the film revolve around the tokusatsu genre was a smart move, especially when stories originating from that genre are very slipshod on plots and off-kilter on themes, which is what Let’s Go does in spades. There are so many plot holes (Why would Siu Sheung join in a crime syndicate if he wants to be heroic as he wanted to be?) and logic is for the most part, thrown out the window. Some amusing jokes and moments happen for no reason other than the fact that it happens in tokusatsu (like Siu Sheung’s sudden superhuman strength or a scene involving regaining a limb). But director Wong’s willingness to play the whole movie straight is a positive in the long run, as it not only adds fun and humour in the proceedings, but much-needed emotional resonance through its dramatic second act.
Unfortunately, Wong can’t quite achieve the perfect balance between drama and fun. The second act is so melodramatic that it becomes depressing at times. The underdog zero-to-hero formula applies here and is executed with style and conviction from the actors and Wong and it makes the final act very satisfying, but the style/direction from Wong (utilizing noir cinematography, slow-motion, brutal action scenes) makes the dramatic situations so overwrought to the point that it almost feels like Wong is spoofing the drama element of the story. With such a self-referential tone in the first act, it does feel a bit abrupt to be swept up in drama like this, but regarding director Wong’s intentions, it certainly does feel like he’s in on the joke at times. There’s a scene involving Shing eating dinner in front of a statue of his own head, and also behind him are men, beaten, battered and chained up. He shoots them one by one whilst eating his dinner as if it were a normal everyday chore. Just describing the scene feels like it should be part of a parody, but it is played completely straight, that you don’t really know for sure whether to be amused or fearful. Wong’s portentous direction just comes off as amusing to those knowing of the tokusatsu genre or just plain off-putting to mainstream audiences.
Helping matters is the varied cast. Juno Mak is fine as Siu Sheung, although he does well in the physicality of the role, he is not always convincing in being the “everyman” of the character. He comes off as distant at times, and while it certainly makes sense in parts of the story, Mak does not engage as much as he could have. Fortunately, the supporting cast not only add fun to the proceedings, they also add much needed emotional resonance and even open up Mak’s character. Stephy Tang is a hoot as Annie, although her character is incredibly unbelievable. Pat Ha is fantastic as Siu Sheung’s mother, and her scenes with Mak are stirring in the best of ways. Wen Chao, who is famous for his voice sounding eerily similar to Stephen Chow, is great as Big Bird, Siu Sheung’s friend and not only does he bring welcome comic relief, he is also compelling as the voice of reason for Siu Sheung. Ditto on the former for Gary Chaw, an unlikely ally for Siu Sheung. But the biggest standout is Gordon Lam as Shing. Finally given a role to really sink into, Lam is downright frightening as the main villain. But what makes his performance even more impressive, is that he manages to find a way to make his character a little sympathetic. He does not start off as the megalomaniac he eventually becomes, but just a stern man who takes his job seriously; and his transformation is a sight to behold. His men, consisting of Chin Siu-ho, Kenny Wong, Ken Lo and Vincent Sze, are good in their small roles, as is Jimmy Wang Yu in a small role as Boss Hon Yu.
Overall, Let’s Go! is a well-made (especially for its budget) fun experience that has plenty of meta moments for the initiated, yet it also has a surprising amount of heart that makes it more substantial and memorable than it has any right to. It may be too esoteric to mainstream audiences and for those expecting wall-to-wall tokusatsu antics will be disappointed, but you can’t really hate a movie where Stephy Tang uses a rocket launcher and where Pat Ha uses a machine gun, can you?
The cast all give great performances (Gordon Lam is a standout as the villain)
The genre mash-up of the offbeat tokusatsu and the nihilistic crime genre surprisingly works well
The distinct Hong Kong feel and attitude add heart to the story
The use of the tokusatsu genre excuses the many plot holes
Not as much tokusatsu or fun as people might expect
Tone shifts are not handled as well as they should have been
Too strange and esoteric for mainstream audiences
Cast: Juno Mak Chun-Lung, Stephy Tang Lai-Yun, Pat Ha Man-Chik, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Wen Chao, Gary Chaw, Jimmy Wang Yu, Dominic Lam Ka-Wah, Hugo Ng Doi-Yung, Ken Lo Wai-Kwong, Chin Siu-Ho, Tony Ho Wah-Chiu, Kenny Wong Tak-Bun, Vincent Sze
Director: Wong Ching-po
Screenwriter: Pak Wing-yan, Simon Lai