[Film Review] Project Gutenberg (2018)

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English Title: Project Gutenberg
Original Title: Mo seung 无双
Year: 2018
Country: Hong Kong, China
Language: Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Thai
Genre: Mystery, Action, Crime
Director/Writer: Felix Chong 庄文强
Music: Day Tai 戴伟
Cinematography: Jason Kwan 关智耀
Chow Yun-Fat 周润发
Aaron Kwok 郭富城
Zhang Jingchu 张静初
Catherine Chau 周家怡
Liu Kai-Chi 廖启智
Joyce Feng 冯文娟
David Wang 王耀庆
Alex Fong 方中信
Jack Kao 高捷
Deno Cheung 张松枝
Justin Cheung 张建声
Paulyn Sun 孙佳君
Xing Jiadong 邢佳栋
Carl Ng 吴嘉龙
Dominic Lam 林嘉华
Leung Kin-Ping 梁健平
Felix Lok 骆应钧
Rating: 7.4/10

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PROJECT GUTENBERG, adhering to Hong Kong cinema’s time-honored “dual-heroes” appeal by paring Chow Yun-Fat with Aaron Kwok, two megastars in pan-Chinese demography, is a crime mystery written and directed by Felix Chong, the second film which he takes a solo director credit, as usually he works in tandem with Alan Mak (his writing and directing partner, together they cut their teeth as the writers of INTERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy in the noughties).

The film, whose original title literally means “unrivaled, or no double”, is a pet project for Chong, who has been tinkering with the script since 2006, and naming itself PROJECT GUTENBERG, it complies with the major plot pivoting around a counterfeit banknote operation led by a mysterious mastermind known as “the Painter” (Chow), but the main narrative is unfolded from the lengthy flashback of his right-hand man, Lee Man (Kwok), a talented art forger, recruited by the Painter in Vancouver, who has to painfully relinquish a relationship with his then painter girlfriend Yuen Man (Zhang).

In the off, Lee Man is extradited from Thailand to Hong Kong, under the investigation of Inspector Ho (Chau, expeditious and hard-hitting), with the presence of Yuen Man, now has become a famous painter and tries to bail him out on the condition that he can act as a key witness to identify and locate the Painter, who has killed her finance. Yet, everything is not what it seems, both Lee Man and Yuen Man’s true identities will shatter any guesswork before the curtain is brought down.

Ingeniously pulling the wool around audience’s eyes, Chong is fiendishly clever in luring us (and the law enforcement) to believe the version of the story solely on one’s say-so, who plays up seemingly ordinary wordplay right in front of our eyes. As Lee Man, Aaron Kwok puts on a timorous, reluctant, perpetually traumatized guise that effectively countervails Chow’s delectable fanfaronade and flinty caprice whenever things go against his will, whose double-submachine-gun wielding killing spree is a nostalgic homage to his heydays in John Woo’s shoot-‘em-ups, and who can still hold court amazingly to leave wide-eyed first-timers awestruck. Female characters are marginalized by default along the boy’s club, but Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu fantastically emotes two diametrically characterized facades, and holds the transition in between grandly and persuasively, particularly in one’s afterthought.

Much admirable effort is exerted to refine the meticulous fake-note manufacturing procedure, Chong and his team has made the entire enterprise very plausible to a layman’s eye, eloquent, snazzy and faux-authentic to an impressive degree. But the fault line seems to lie in its generic visual drabness, whether it is in Canada or a concrete jungle like Hong Kong, an unrelieved steely coldness might fall in with the story’s tonality of duplicity, but doesn’t look spectacular concomitant with action and interfacing dynamism.

That said, sitting through its final reveal, which is literally down to the last line (delivered by Yuen Man) in the aftermath, one cans sizably appreciate the tie-ins between the criminal actions of fakery and an unrequited love that leads our protagonist to create a carbon copy to ensconce his yearning, it is sentimentally contradictory with the alpha-male image we have been watching all along, which flags up the sticking point: actually we have no idea of what is the Painter’s make-up, once Lee Man’s one-sided story is debunked. A good jumping-off point for a possible sequel as the film accrued a tremendously lucrative box-office coup for a Hong Kong picture, grossing over $180 million during the red-hot Chinese National Day slot in 2018, if only Chong can continue to fabricate a compelling story as unpredictable as it can incredibly hold water.

referential entries: John Woo’s ONCE A THIEF (1991, 6.5/10); Felix Chong and Alan Mak’s OVERHEARD (2009, 7.0/10); Bryan Singer’s THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995, 8.4/10).

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