The urge to spoil a movie has seldom been stronger in me than it is now, just a couple of hours after watching Project Gutenberg – which, incidentally, has nothing to do with digital books, volunteer efforts or noble purposes.
Treading on ground that bears the footprints of the classic A Better Tomorrow and a Hollywood movie that I cannot mention (or risk unleashing that spoiler-ish urge), Project Gutenberg is all about counterfeit money and the gangsters who make it.
Why did it leave me somewhat riled? Mainly because its final act tries to be too clever and ends up undermining the fine work done by its cast (and also, up to that point, by writer-director Felix Chong of Infernal Affairs and Overheard fame).
Its last scene even cheapens the emotional connection between two principal characters; a bond that, you could say, is the impetus for nearly everything that happens in the film. Chow Yun Fat returns to the kind of “dapper don” role that we have really missed seeing him in (at least since 2012’s The Last Tycoon) as Painter, the leader of a counterfeit syndicate.
Charismatic and suave, Painter has a menacing side that shows itself in brutal bursts, and Chow is simply great at portraying both sides of the man.
Aaron Kwok, meanwhile, continues to play against type to good effect, like he did in last year’s bizarre but watchable K-movie remake Peace Breaker.
Here, he is a timorous, bumbling but ambitious wannabe artist named Lee Man, whose talent for forgery is “spotted” by Painter. (Painter’s dismissive critique of Lee’s artwork, just to get his attention, has some of the best lines in the movie.)
The late 1990s-set film is structured around the Hong Kong police interrogating a suspected counterfeiter, with the blanks getting filled in as we go along.
It’s quite fascinating to watch the characters – Lee, Painter, their cohorts and friends – interact in Chong’s beguilingly choreographed dance as the mastermind’s greatest forgery scheme is put into action.
We even don’t mind when he dumps us on our collective rear ends by cutely inserting flashbacks within the one big flashback that is the film’s primary framework.
(The hairdo of Catherine Chau’s driven police inspector character is one visual cue to tell the timelines apart. Kwok’s hairdo on the other hand is a constant reminder that some timelines are best put behind us.)
Nor do we mind when, after a big business deal turns out to be an act of vengeance, the film-maker channels the excesses (and laziness) of A Better Tomorrow II by having dozens of bad guys obligingly run into Painter’s twin-machinegun line of fire.
There is actually so much packed into Project Gutenberg’s first 90 or so minutes that I’m sure most viewers would have been happy to see it continue along the trajectory that the writer-director establishes over that time.
Even when Chong abruptly yanks us in another direction, there is still a moment when the film could have ended on an ambiguous yet somehow satisfying note.
At that point, we could have been left to ponder questions about yearnings, the resignation to the fact that some things are forever lost to us, and the acceptance of a substitute – a forgery as it were, in the film’s context – as the next best thing.
Could the principal characters have lived with those choices?
Rather than leave us to reach our own conclusions, Project Gutenberg shuts the door on post-movie rumination to us.
While Painter at one point decries the folly of living in a black-or-white world, the film chooses to end its run-time being a colour.
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Director: Felix Chong
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Aaron Kwok, Zhang Jingchu, Catherine Chau, Liu Kai-Chi, Jack Kao