Film review: The Last Tycoon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 4:23pm

Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Huang Xiaoming, Sammo Hung Kam-bo, Francis Ng Chun-yu
Director: Wong Jing
Category: IIB (Cantonese)

Before he appeared in A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Chow Yun-fat (above) achieved fame and popularity with The Bund, a 1980 TVB series about two gangsters who rose to prominence in Republican-era Shanghai. And in the 2007 mainland remake, Huang Xiaoming played the character Chow had portrayed in the original series.

So it's quite the coup for director Wong Jing to have secured the services of not only Chow to star in The Last Tycoon as a top boss of the Shanghai underworld with traits and a story arc similar to The Bund's Hui Man-keung but, also, Huang to play the character's younger self!

The period drama-actioner opens with a shot of an immaculate looking Chow majestically perched atop a throne-like seat and coolly fanning himself. But its story properly begins in 1913, with Huang playing Cheng Daqi as a young man with a humble background but high ambitions - and a lady love (Joyce Feng Wenjuan) who similarly wishes to leave their village to seek her fortunes elsewhere.

An innocently romantic interlude is soon interrupted by acts of violence though. And whereas his paramour heads to Beijing to pursue her dream of becoming a Peking opera performer, a twist of fate sends Cheng on the road to that "playground for the adventurous" that was early 20th century Shanghai.

Flash forward to 1937, and Cheng (now portrayed by Chow) is shown to have prospered tremendously - together with his boss turned partner, Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung Kam-bo), and Mao Zai (Francis Ng Chun-yu), the military man who taught Cheng to kill. Now married to a loving wife (Monica Mok Xiaqi), Cheng chances upon his old flame (Ye Zhiqiu is now played by Yolanda Yuan Quan) on a visit to Shanghai with her husband, an underground resistance leader (Xie Baoqing).

Although his heart leaps upon seeing her again, no happy reconciliation is possible - not least because of larger events occurring in their world, including the Japanese attack, capture and occupation of the city. Early on during the hostilities, Cheng escapes to Hong Kong, but it's only a matter of time before he returns to do his patriotic duty and help resist Japanese rule - with consequences that smack of revisionist fantasy.

In its general treatment as well as in terms of its subject matter, the film is one of its director's more serious efforts. It also undoubtedly benefits from Andrew Lau Wai-keung being one of its main cinematographers as well as producers: there are several shots of Chow Yun-fat looking very stylish indeed, and a rooftop scene with Huang and Feng that borders on the artistic.

However, Wong Jing just can't seem to resist inserting action scenes that echo and effectively parody the films of John Woo Yu-sum and Wong Kar-wai. They may look good and elicit knowing laughs but such moves only cheapen the viewing experience. Worse, the movie's many flashbacks and flash-forwards can be read as signs that The Last Tycoon's story may have been too expansive for its helmer to comfortably handle.

The Last Tycoon opens today