First published by EyeforFilm
With its criss-crossing lives, dizzying coincidences and karmic symmetries, One Nite In Mongkok, not unlike the Infernal Affairs trilogy before it, is a taut crime thriller that moonlights as ensemble morality tale and allegory of Hong Kong’s post-handover relationship with mainland China.
In Derek Yee’s gritty urban noir, Mongkok is not just a lurid commercial quarter of Hong Kong’s Kowloon province, but a focal point for many of the contradictions in contemporary Chinese society: a strange limbo where opportunity gets into bed with corruption, junkies have graduated with police officers, yokels dine under the same roof as city slickers, criminals rub shoulders with lawmen, killers proffer salvation and East meets West as the wheel of fate is set spinning on Christmas Eve.
As tensions escalate between two rival gangs, venal middleman Liu (Lam Suet) arranges for an outsider to cross over from his mainland Chinese village to murder one of the gang lords. Lai Fu (Daniel Wu), an illiterate but resourceful provincial, naïvely takes on the contract (his first) hoping to search Hong Kong for his missing fiancée, but instead finds Dandan (Cecelia Cheung), a fellow mainlander, working as a prostitute to support her family back home. Meanwhile world-weary Officer Milo (Alex Fong) leads his team, including the trigger-happy rookie Ben (Anson Leung), in a bid to find the feuding gang leaders and the fugitive hitman before war erupts on the streets -but destiny has conspired to set this disparate collection of characters on a collision course in the world’s most densely populated neighbourhood.
Just as far-sighted Milo can only “see things at a distance” and Lai Fu is made “dizzy” by the contact lenses he is forced to wear after his glasses are broken, a similar sense of myopia is induced in the viewer by writer/director Yee as he constructs a disorienting labyrinth of occasionally intersecting storylines. Here policemen and prey circle each other much as they did in Michael Mann’s Heat, except that when their paths finally cross, it is due less to any stringent investigative procedure than to dumb luck and the vagaries of cause and effect.
Not that Yee’s Mongkok is ruled merely by arbitrary actions, or moral emptiness, for even if it is a place where lives are cheap (as both Lai Fu and Dandan assert) and everyone seems doomed, there is always the possibility to “think twice before you take any action”, to “choose a good way”, to give up bad habits and “do some good if you’ve any spare cash.” Despite the shortcomings of human justice, in the end accounts are settled and balance is restored, as police, criminals and all those in between, prove equally susceptible to Taoist principles of natural harmony (not to mention Taoist warnings against the dangers of city life).
Frenetic pacing, mobile handheld camerawork and multiple plots that reel and twist, might suggest a drunken night on the town, but thanks to intense performances (especially from the ever grave Fong) and a tragic trajectory, Yee’s film remains a sober affair. Gripping, convoluted and deadly serious, it is one long dark nite of the soul.