In every department, from casting to cinematography, “Gangster Pay Day” taps into the spirit of the 1980s and ’90s golden age of Hong Kong crime movies, which started to wane around the same time Great Britain’s lease on the territory expired. Toplining a terrific Anthony Wong as a weary mob boss who helps a spirited young woman stand up to nasty property developers, this Cantonese-language crime-comedy-romance ought to strike a winning chord with local auds at a time when strong feelings of identity and self-determination are in the air. Pic will also appeal to offshore auds that discovered Hong Kong cinema during its action-movie heyday. Following its world preem as the closing-night attraction at Busan, “Gangster Pay Day” opens in Hong Kong on Nov. 6.
With nary a gun in sight and only a few scenes involving fisticuffs, the pic is primarily concerned with how hard it’s become for an old-school crime boss like Ghost (Anthony Wong) to make a living. Surrounded by handsome young protege, Leung (Wong Yau-nam), and trusted old lieutenants Brother 2 (Chan Wai-man) and Uncle B (Ng Chi-hung), Ghost is facing tough times now that the karaoke bars and health spas he owns are declining sharply in popularity.
If audiences aren’t immediately sympathetic to the soft-spoken Ghost, they’ll be nodding in approval when he refuses to sell drugs on his premises after being pressured to join the narco trade by rival gang leader Bill (Keung Hon-man). But the real villains here are shady property developers who’ve hired Bill and his goons to wrest control of a traditional teahouse in a building owned by Ghost and run by plucky girl Mei (Charlene Choi).
The story coasts along predictably but enjoyably as Ghost comes to Mei’s aid and makes inept romantic moves on her, unaware that she’s been in love with Leung since meeting him earlier at the karaoke joint. Played for romantic-comedy amusement rather than heavy melodrama, the love triangle is smartly sorted out by Ghost’s ex-wife, Pui (Carrie Ng), a no-nonsense type who remains close to her former hubby and tells Mei that these criminal types are like children who need a firm hand.
In keeping with rules governing the genre, it’s a tragedy within Ghost’s ranks that triggers the inevitable showdown with Bill. While there’s never any doubt about the outcome, the film is consistently entertaining thanks to pacy direction by experienced helmer Lee Po-cheung (“Single Blog”); a screenplay by Lee and co-writer Lily He that’s packed with well-drawn characters and crisp dialogue; and peppy performances from a cast with strong connections to the days when every second Hong Kong movie seemed to be triad-related.
Wong, whose distinguished crime-pic pedigree includes “Full Contact” (1992) and the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy, is spot-on as the tough-but-tender gangster whose emotional register shifts from anger and pain at the realization his glory days are over, to relief and optimism once he comes into contact with Mei and starts thinking about the benefits of getting into the strictly legit teashop business. Popster-thesp Choi is splendid as the independent-minded girl who initially says she doesn’t want Ghost’s help, and isn’t afraid to ask him disarmingly funny and direct questions such as what else he does “apart from killing people.”
Chan Wai-man and Ng Chi-hung, both of whom were real-life triad members before becoming much-loved character actors, are wonderful as Ghost’s loyal sidekicks, who seem only too happy to get out of the crime biz and into the teahouse kitchen, where the perfect recipe for pineapple tart is of paramount importance. Carrie Ng, whose association with Category III sexploiters such as “Naked Killer” (1992) tends to overshadow her fine thesping in many quality dramas, is sleek and charismatic as a dame who’s seen it all and takes no crap from anyone. Of the many familiar faces playing smaller roles the standouts are Arthur Wong as uber-boss Brother Tai, and Cheung Tung-cho as Uncle Kwan, the entirely lovable stalwart chef at Mei’s teahouse.
Filmed mostly in interiors with a steady camera and classical framing, “Gangster Pay Day” has an intimate feel that’s just right for the many discussions about how dramatically Hong Kong has changed in recent times and what effect this has had on personal, community and business relationships. Production design and costumes contain neat retro touches without going overboard. Brother Hung’s score gets a little mushy in the melodramatic segs but flies in the comedic passages with delightfully jaunty and jangly flourishes of piano accordion. Other technical contributions are top-notch.