The propaganda photo was designed to depict the post-1949 fate of Chinese gangsters. In it, an 80 year-old man mopped the street in Shanghai. He was Huang Jinrong, the city’s most senior mafia boss, a man who had once ruled the Bund.
When the Communist Party took over, Huang opted to cooperate with China’s new rulers as they cracked down mercilessly on triads across the country. Most gangsters were executed or jailed. (Another famous drug lord Du Yuesheng fled to Hong Kong and died in poverty.) Huang’s own punishment was re-education through labour, swapping a gun for a mop.
So were all the triads eliminated by the new boss Mao Zedong? Yes, if Party propaganda is anything to go by. And for that reason gangster movies have been largely absent from Chinese cinemas. “Triads? How could there be any triads in China?” claims a popular quote from The Big Shot’s Funeral, a 2001 comedy directed by Feng Xiaogang.
But it seems that gangsterism is no longer a no-go area, with a hit movie starring Feng offering a rare glimpse of the changing face of the Chinese underworld.
Set in Beijing, Mr Six is heavily loaded with the capital’s local culture. Its Chinese title, Lao Pao’er, is Peking dialect (which typically adds a tongue-rolling “er” sound onto the end of almost every word). It translates into ‘old cannon’ in written Chinese but before Mr Six reached cinema screens only Beijingers could infer its true meaning. According to Beijing News, the term refers to the group of street punks who ruled the alleys lining the city’s traditional hutong courtyards in the 1960s.
Lao pao’er were a by-product of the Cultural Revolution. At the time young Beijingers were divided into two camps: the ‘hutong children’ versus the ‘dayuan princelings’. The dayuan lived in the newly built (and heavily fenced) mansions housing Communist officials and their families, aka Beijing’s new ruling classes. Meanwhile, ‘hutong children’ typically came from richer families which had lived in Beijing for generations.
Many ‘dayuan princelings’ would become Mao Zedong’s Red Guards at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The ‘hutong children’ weren’t eligible for the same positions because of their less revolutionary pedigree. But when local order was threatened, the tougher ‘hutong children’ stood up as protectors of their local neighbourhoods against the intruding Red Guards, and subsequently grew into gangster groups who abided only by their own rules.
Many of them were subsequently jailed. Released from prison later in life they are the lao pao’er of the film – the grumpy old fixtures on Beijing’s back streets who stick to their time-honoured codes, but don’t realise that time has moved on without them.
Mr Six has been warmly received not only by Beijingers but also by audiences nationwide. It debuted on December 24 and as of Tuesday it had grossed more than Rmb700 million ($107 million).
The movie has some compelling selling points, Xinhua suggests. One of them being that it is only the second time that Feng Xiaogang has played a lead role in a film and “it might be his last”.
Normally more comfortable directing behind the camera, Feng even has a sex scene with lead actress Xu Qing. He plays Mr Six, a lao pao’er in his late 50s. The former gangster cares little about his tiny grocery store but is obsessed with solving problems for others in return for their respect. The main plot unfolds when his son gets snatched by flashy young triads, led by a 20-something guanerdai, the son of a provincial official, who drives a Ferrari and dyes his hair white. The story then centres on the generational clash between an old-school gangster and the new guard of street hoods (who turn out to be spoiled kids).
Guan Hu, the director of Mr Six, says he wanted to remind audiences not to forget China’s older values, even if the actual example he depicts is underworld omerta rather than those of Confucius.
“There are codes many Chinese used to live by, but have now been forgotten: a code of principles and etiquette,” he told the Global Times.
The movie looks like a rule-bending one. For instance, the Beijing Tobacco Control Association has accused the 138-minute production of containing too many scenes where characters smoke in public (102 minutes in total). Others reckon the media regulators have turned a blind eye to the unusual amount of offensive language in the script. “If you cut all the expletives from The Godfather do you think they would still speak like a mafia family from Sicily?” Feng told Xinhua.
Perhaps more importantly, the censor has allowed Mr Six to portray a Chinese gangster in a more positive light. “A lao pao’er charging towards a Ferrari with a blade, isn’t it like Don Quixote fighting the windmill?” one critic wondered on Tencent News, waxing lyrical about Mr Six’s final confrontation with a group of the young thugs.
But the script also has Mr Six reporting the guanerdai to the Party’s anti-graft commission just before he begins his last battle. This aspect of the plot may have helped Guan and Feng win over the censors, as it fits nicely with prevailing realities in Beijing and China today.
Not all were excited by this twist, mind you. “The movie is great until the last bit. In the end Mr Six becomes a movie about Chinese gangsters supporting the anti-corruption campaign,” one of the film’s critics told Sohu News.
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