Minor but pleasant, Gangster Payday is the benign cousin of harder-edged Hong Kong films of old. Lee Bo-Cheung (Single Blog ) directs and co-writes this gently funny triad comedy that putters around for a good hour before swerving towards more traditional genre tropes. Anthony Wong is Brother Ghost, an honorable triad who’s not into harmful stuff like drugs and killing, and instead runs a karaoke bar while fending off the advances of scummy bastards like rival triad Brother Bill (Keung Ho-Man). Ghost becomes enamored of Mei (Charlene Choi), an average girl who runs a typical neighborhood cha chaan teng (Hong Kong-style cafй), and begins to pursue her in a cajoling, adolescent way. Ghost helps Mei with her restaurant by having his followers (including dudes played by triad film regulars Chan Wai-Man and Ng Chi-Hung) work for her while calling her ah soh (or “sister in law”, meaning she’s their boss’ wife). With Ghost and the gang’s help, the restaurant improves and business surges. See? Gangsters can be helpful!
Despite the uptick in afternoon tea orders, Mei is unnerved by Ghost’s obvious affection – and she’s got good reason. Mei is currently flirting-via-text with Ghost’s subordinate Leung (Wong Yau-Nam), and who knows how Ghost will react if he finds out? This love triangle is the film’s main focus during its first half, and engages in fits and starts. The characters don’t resonate immediately and the whole affair is so low-key that it starts to feel unnecessary. For a while, this is basically a movie about Charlene Choi becoming the homecoming
queen and how she deals with all the extra attention. There’s charm to this laid-back romantic comedy-gangster film hybrid, but said charm relies on its stars, perhaps to a fault. Anthony Wong’s giddy infatuation is amusing (and also a little creepy), while Wong Yau-Nam doesn’t do much besides soulfully mope. As Mei, Charlene Choi is naturally appealing and surprisingly subtle (well, for her, anyway). Liking Gangster Payday for these reasons is fine, but if you get sleepy it would be totally understandable.
Gangster Payday opens with a shot of Mei picking up Ghost’s funeral photo before jumping back in time to their first meeting, so impending pathos is telegraphed. Yet, when the story does turn, it manages the unexpected while also ratcheting up the film’s emotions. The film becomes one of those once-common Hong Kong multi-genre mixes where things start one way before shifting in a completely different direction. Also, the characters become more poignant. The characters make a wan impression when they’re fussing over pineapple buns and checking their phone apps, but when bad times hit they instantly earn sympathy. Opportunities are missed by the filmmakers; the humor could be sharper, and Brother Hung’s music is schmaltzy and intrusive. The end result never feels like a must-see as the film fails to find a strong emotional or thematic undercurrent. Still, I’m going with the half-full glass. Gangster Payday is a competent telling of a fine little story that’s representative of the type of film that once made Hong Kong Cinema unique. And that means something. (Kozo, 11/2014)
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