Entertainment, Society

Chasing that dragon

Why a Hong Kong gangster epic is a National Day holiday hit


Gangland moll: Michelle Hu stars as the wife of triad boss Ng

Gangster movies don’t normally get a showing at Chinese cinemas given that mafia bosses (along with ghosts) were declared a thing of the past when the Communist Party took power 1949 (both things violated its ideological principles: the first being an enemy of the proletariat, the second as a superstition).

Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s Election was granted a run in 2005, but only after the acclaimed thriller’s ending (and title) were changed so that a crime boss turned out to be an undercover policeman. Mr Six, which starred Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang as a Beijing mobster, also got the all-clear from regulators last year, probably because the character happened to be a vocal supporter of Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign (see WiC308).

As reported last week the censors have been working overtime ahead of the 19th Party Congress and Feng’s Youth, a film about a group of dancers during the Cultural Revolution, was denied a release during the National Day holidays (see WiC382). Which begs the question: how did Chasing the Dragon, a biopic about a Chinese drug lord and a corrupt police boss, get the green light during the lucrative week-long window?

Hong Kong director Wong Jing has his own patriotic answer: the drug-dealing and attendant corruption all happened in Hong Kong under British colonial rule prior to the city’s 1997 return to China. Ergo it didn’t happen on Beijing’s watch.

The dragon is a symbol of imperial power but in Cantonese “chasing the dragon” refers to a way addicts consume heroin by burning it on tin foil. Accordingly, Chasing the Dragon tries to retell the rise and fall of Ng Sik-ho – who dominated Hong Kong heroin trafficking in the 1960s – and his close relationship with Lui Lok, one of the most corrupt police officers in the territory’s history.

The duo thrived at a time when corruption was endemic in the British colony. Their respective power is reflected by one of Lui’s more memorable lines in the movie: “You [Ng] rule the underground world. I run the other side.”

That cosy tie-up changed when the British set up the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in 1974 to clean up the public sector. In the same year officer Lui fled to Taiwan (legend has it that he had amassed a fortune of HK$500 million at a time when an average apartment cost less than HK$100,000). He died in Canada in 2010. Ng was arrested in 1975 and given a 30-year jail sentence (he died in 1991, a few months after he was pardoned and released).

The crime duo have featured countless times in Hong Kong movies. Wong himself has produced or directed five titles about them. One of those was Lee Rock in 1992 which starred a young Andy Lau as the corrupt detective. Indeed, Lau returns in Chasing the Dragon as Lui while Donnie Yen plays Ng (starlet Michelle Hu plays the wife of the mafia boss).

Yen has seen his star rise in China thanks to his patriotic roles in the Ip Man franchise (see WiC62). In Chasing the Dragon he takes on a rare role as villain, although even Hong Kong’s most notorious heroin boss gets a little bit of kudos because of his antipathy to the colonial authorities. In the movie, Ng is forced to become a gangster because he cannot find another way to make a living in such a corrupt foreign-controlled society. (In one highly improbable scene, the mafia boss even becomes a member of the much-venerated Jockey Club and wins a high-society horserace.)

Wong admits he twisted the traditional narrative on Ng to make the colonial governors the true villains. “We’re showing how the British colonial powers didn’t do anything good for Hongkongers. They were only colluding for bribes,” the writer-director told the South China Morning Post in an interview last month.

Wong is Hong Kong’s most prolific filmmaker having produced more than 400 movies. No other director can match his local success commercially but notably he has never won an award at any of Hong Kong’s film festivals. In recent years, he has spent more of his time plying his trade in the mainland market (or else indulging in online spats with Hong Kong celebrities that voice anti-Beijing sentiments).

For Hongkongers, Chasing the Dragon might seem like another repeat of an overused plot but Tencent Entertainment says the gangster epic has been fresh and exciting for moviegoers in mainland China.

The Golden Week window is going to be one of the busiest ever with a record 12 movies competing for box office take that is expected to reach Rmb2.4 billion ($360 million) over the eight-day holiday period.

The opening weekend saw Never Say Die, a martial arts comedy produced by a popular Beijing theatre group, leading the pack with a $46 million take – having got 15% of cinema screen slots nationwide. That was followed by Jackie Chan’s The Foreigner, co-starring Pierce Brosnan, with $22 million garnered from 12% of screens.

(The People’s Liberation Army had high hopes for starlet Fan Bingbing’s Sky Hunter but Beijing News says the army-backed film has scored poorly at the box office and in industry reviews.)

Chasing the Dragon came third in the weekend rankings with $14 million in ticket sales, although Tencent Entertainment says the film is gathering momentum as the “dark horse” in the pack.

“The movie has been winning audiences and critics over and many have called for cinema bosses to give Chasing the Dragon more screens,” the news portal notes.

The same film has also shown in Hong Kong but the reception has so far been tepid. “I hope the mainland audience has not seen Lee Rock or the many other reboots before,” one critic wrote on HK01, a news portal.

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