The solo directing bow of “Infernal Affairs” scribe Felix Chong, “Once a Gangster” covers familiar Hong Kong genre turf, but does so with a wacky comedic eye, if less overall success. Centered around a mild restaurateur with mob connections who’s forced to head a Kowloon Triad, the script shows brief flashes of wit and intelligence, and plays hit-and-run with local genre conventions in a way that will amuse Asiaphiles but leave others scratching their heads. (A Martin Scorsese remake is unlikely.) Pic charmed Chinese-language territories in late May but failed to unseat the “Ip Man” juggernaut.
Film opens with an “Election”-like Triad initiation ceremony that also harks back to street-gang franchise “Young and Dangerous,” which launched the careers of this pic’s stars, Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan. Among the initiates is Roast Pork (initially played by Derek Tsang, son of Hong Kong character actor Eric Tsang), who aspires to run a restaurant free from protection rackets. After 20 years of hard work, Roast Pork (now Chan) achieves his goal, but when his Triad boss, Kerosene (Alex Fong), gets into financial trouble, he’s asked to serve as temporary replacement.
Constrained by the gangster vows of his youth, Roast Pork concurs, but his promotion doesn’t go uncontested. Triad elders block a protest by the moronic Scissors (Chan Chi-chung) because — in a long-winded jibe at “Infernal Affairs” — he’s the only gang member who doesn’t realize his right-hand man, Yan (Wilfred Lau), is actually a police informer. The Triad elders have a harder time placating the drug-addicted daughter of the gang’s founder, Junkie Pearl (Yu On-on), who believes her boy, Swallow (Cheng), should be the gang’s rightful leader. Fresh from jail, Swallow would rather study Milton Friedman’s economics than rule a Hong Kong gang.
Yarn is as dopey as it sounds, but is genial fun nonetheless. In between hit-and-miss laughs, occasional genuine moments of tension emerge, such as the grim humor of Roast Pork’s failed Molotov-cocktail attack on a defiant bank manager. Film’s oddest moment is a rousing, “Magnolia”-like musical number that plays like a gangland anthem.
Thesping reps a collision of multiple styles. At one end of the spectrum, Chan gives an amusing straight-faced performance, but Yu unrestrainedly chews the scenery.
Helming is as erratic as the script. Like many enthusiastic beginners, Chong overdoes the fancy camera angles, but many of his other scenes are so poorly set up they look like flat, last-minute improvisations for a low-budget sitcom.
Tsou Lin-yau’s lensing is constrained by Chong’s less artful helming decisions, but has the visual mimicry all good parodies need. Other tech credits are average.