Felix Chong leaves regular directing partner Alan Mak behind for the time being with Project Gutenberg (2018), his first solo outing since Once a Gangster (2010). Chong has worked on some of the finest Hong Kong thrillers in recent memory such as Infernal Affairs (2001) and Overheard (2009), and whilst Project Gutenberg may not be in the same league as these classics, it has enough twists and turns to keep most action thriller fans entertained.
The film opens with counterfeiter Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) languishing in a Thai prison. He is released into the custody of the Hong Kong Police to aid them in the capture of mysterious criminal, Painter (Chow Yun Fat). Lee is the only surviving member of Painter’s counterfeiting gang and is currently the only person that can identify him. Lee appears to be terrified of Painter, and squarely refuses to assist the police in his capture.
Lee eventually agrees after his ex-girlfriend Yuen Man (Zhang Jingchu) appears on the scene. Appealing to his better nature, Yuen Man also wants to see Painter captured, as he murdered her fiancé. From here Lee Man begins to tell his tale, flashing back to before his capture and how he initially came to be involved with Painter’s criminal exploits.
Chong, who also wrote the screenplay, fills his script with metaphors as well as liberally borrowing from a number of famous Hollywood and Hong Kong action thrillers. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the films Project Gutenberg is emulating should be able to tell what the main twists will be.
Even with this in mind, Chong still manages to hold the audience’s attention by building up the suspense and filling the film with interesting characters, wonderful performances, and when the time comes, some excellent action scenes. Moving at a slower pace than the trailers may suggest, Chong tells his story in a non-linear fashion with the audience only being given as much information as warrants the particular scene.
Similar to William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1986), Chong also goes to great pains to show the intricacies of counterfeiting and everything that has to be taken into consideration, such as using a particular type of paper or ink. To Chong’s credit, these sequences hold the viewers’ attention and keep what would normally be an otherwise boring part of the film quite interesting.
Assisting in the visual quality of the film is first rate cinematography from Jason Kwan. Kwan gives the film a slightly grey washed out look, the polar opposite of his previous work on Chasing The Dragon (2017).
Performance wise, one of the main pleasures of Project Gutenberg is having superstar Chow Yun Fat back in action. Apart from The Man From Macau series, Chow has most recently been appearing in supporting roles with the likes of The Monkey King (2014) and Cold War 2 (2016), coincidentally both co-starring Aaron Kwok.
The part of Painter seems tailor made for Chow, riffling on some of his most famous roles, especially his work with director John Woo. One particular scene has him lighting his cigarette with a burning counterfeit bank note that harkens way back to A Better Tomorrow (1986). Even during the film’s main action scene, Chow is shown brandishing twin hand guns and wearing a white suit. All that’s missing are the white doves.
Although Chow is essentially the film’s villain, he is still at his charismatic best. Giving one of his best performances in years, Chow’s Painter has a cold calculating charm, with him at times being both threatening and likeable in equal measure. Even at 63 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down, throwing himself into the films action when it comes.
Whereas Chow Yun Fat is the epitome of cool throughout, Aaron Kwok’s Lee Man is the polar opposite. Far removed from the action heroes he has played in the past, Kwok’s Lee Man is a cowardly, snivelling wreck of a man. As the film progresses you begin to realize that he is an unreliable narrator, with his true motives only becoming clear as the film progresses.
With a career spanning three decades, Kwok has only got better with age, these days focusing on more character driven works. Chow Yun Fat may get top billing, but it is Kwok that is truly the star of the film.
Rounding out the supporting cast in small but pivotal roles are the likes of Zhang Jing-Chu, Catherine Chow, Liu Kai-Chi and the ever reliable Alex Fong Chung-Sun, who all do first-rate work in a relatively short amount of screen time.
Project Gutenberg is primarily a thriller but it does include a couple of well realized action scenes to liven up proceedings. The best of these is a lengthy shootout in Thailand, where Painter gets revenge on a crime lord. This scene alone is filled with enough explosive carnage to satisfy any action fan.
The action was choreographed by the terrific Nicky Li Chung-Chi, who is fast becoming one of the best action directors in Hong Kong cinema. His work here may not be in the same league as the likes of SPL 2: A Time of Consequences (2015) and The Brink (2017) which he previously worked on, but it is still of a very high quality. It is just a shame there is not more of it.
Surprisingly Project Gutenberg has been nominated for a fair share of awards at the 38thHong Kong Film Awards, including best film, best director, best actor for both Chow Yun Fat and Aaron Kwok and a number of other nominations. It will be interesting to see what awards, if any, it will finally walk away with.
Whilst it never lives up to the Hong Kong action movies of old, Project Gutenberg still makes for a satisfying action thriller that gives both Chow Yun Fat and Arron Kwok equal chance to shine. It does lose some points for slightly losing its way towards the end, but can ultimately be forgiven.
Written by Guest Reviewer: Darren Murray (Facebook Profile)