What do you get when you cross a big name cast with stylish direction and triad thriller trimmings? Infernal Affairs anyone? Jiang Hu stars Andy Lau (A World Without Thieves, Infernal Affairs Trilogy) and Jacky Cheung (Ashes of Time Redux, Bullet in the Head), reprising their triad boss-lieutenant relationship from Wong Kar Wal's debut As Tears Go By.
It also stars fresh talent like Shawn Yue (Dragon Tiger Gate, Infernal Affairs Trilogy) and Edison Chen (Initial D, Infernal Affairs Trilogy) as younger Triad members hoping to make the big time. Comparisons have been made to The Godfather: Part II, but let's not get carried away. Jiang Hu underperformed at the Asian box office and was mauled by critics expecting greater things. You can’t really blame them, the cast list is sublime. Our four protagonists are joined by the likes of Eric Tsang, Gordon Lam and Suet Lam. So does this 2004 gangster movie succeed in its own right, or does the love for all things Infernal cast a shadow over Jiang Hu’s fate?
Triad leader Hung (Andy Lau) wants to leave the underworld behind and make a new start, but attempting to leave can result in death so you understand his hesitance. The news that someone has hired an assassin to kill him in 12 hours doesn’t help much either. Hung's best friend Lefty (Jacky Cheung) offers to kill anybody that gets in his way, which means taking control of the business and allowing Hung to leave the country with his wife and baby. Wing (Shawn Yue) is hoping to make his name in the gangster world, and he’s taking his best friend Turbo (Edison Chen) along for the ride.
Wong Ching-Po must have thought all his prayers had been answered when directing duties came his way; a feeling that’s substantiated as the film unfolds. There’s no doubt about it, this is a stylish debut from the fledgling director, but you don’t half get the feeling that he’s trying too hard. Slow motion is the order of the day here, rain soaked city streets heighten the emotion and a laughable musical score undermines the strong performances. I get it. Wong Ching-Po wants us to feel the passion and drama as it unfolds on screen, but surely he could have let the actors do the talking?
The over-enthusiastic score makes the film feel dated, and stylish visual trickery detracts from the mood of the piece. Not only that, the final showdown prolongs an obvious conclusion and viewer investment is hard to come by. For a film that clocks in at just under 80 minutes, Jiang Hu makes hard work of keeping the audience engaged. Lau and Cheung spend most of the movie eating at a dinner table, discussing life and comparing their conflict to a game of chess. This might sound dull on paper, and in less capable hands in would have been, but thankfully Lau and Cheung are as enjoyable as ever, with or without the silly haircuts that upstage their every move.
Despite the over familiar themes that plague Jiang Hu, Wong Ching-Po’s first feature deserves to do better on DVD. Like I said, the cast is superb. Not only that, but Jiang Hu does look good enough to eat at times. Wong Ching-Po could learn a little something about restraint, but the film still manages to dazzle on occasion, and besides, it would have clocked in at less than an hour had his camerawork not been so enthusiastic. Lau and Cheung impress in their limited roles, as does the pairing of Edison Chen and Shawn Yue. The musical arrangements are distracting, of course, but occasionally, just occasionally, Jiang Hu succeeds in bringing home the bacon.
Then there’s the ending. The one moment that separates Jiang Hu from the rest of the chasing pack. On reflection it is indeed nothing new, but the twist in the tale is handled well and I certainly wasn’t expecting such an effective finish. That being said, it’s pretty obvious that the rest of the film was engineered around this far out finale, which probably explains why it’s nowhere near as satisfying as it should be. Jiang Hu is less than a sum of its parts and Wong Ching-Po fails to make the most of a wonderful cast.
Attractive on the surface, with a great looking cast and a final reveal that feels more at home in the horror genre, Jiang Hu is more miss than hit, but certainly worth a look for fans of the players involved. AW