Herman Yau is one of Hong Kong’s most prolific, professional, and reliable directors. There are a few things that I really admire about the vast majority of his work. Herman Yau doesn’t make movies.
He makes movies that are better than they should be.
With a lot of his films, an objective glance at the cast list and the budget would make you cringe. To be clear, I’m not talking about Mobfathers here. I’m talking about Split Second Murder and Kung Fu Angels. I enjoyed both of those movies immensely, and I didn’t expect to.
But here’s an illustrative example of Herman Yau’s directorial virtuosity from Mobfathers: Deep Ng appears in this movie, and he was actually good!
The other aspect I really appreciate about Herman Yau and his work is that he often brings a subtle but significant social and/or political consciousness to his films. With movies like From the Queen to the Chief Executive, Love Lifting, and Whispers and Moans, he tells stories about regular people and the struggles they face in their regular, unglamorous lives.
The Mobfathers sits squarely at the intersection of these two aspects of Herman Yau’s work. On one level, Mobfathers is a soundly generic (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) and very entertaining gangster movie. Chapman To plays a young (ish) boss who’s getting out of prison after a five year term. He’s walking into a simmering gang war sparked by the imminent election of a new leader.
Anthony Wong Chau San, who’s made a lot of movies with Herman Yau, turns in yet another memorable, admirable performance as the venerable dragon head of the Jing Hing Society. A scene where he talks to his doctor is probably my favorite moment of his performance, because it is masterfully performed.
Gregory Wong plays Chapman’ rival, another young hotshot on the rise. One thing I really appreciated about this character is the way that his sexual orientation is presented. It’s seen as notable but not defining, and thankfully Gregory Wong never devolves into the mincing parody that too often passes for a local portrayal of a gay man.
Or of Wong Cho Lam in general, But I digress.
I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot, because I don’t want to give anything away, but I was impressed with how much energy and life Herman Yau gets out of a well-worn (and well-loved) local film genre (and plot line). We already know how the story unfolds, but there’s still plenty here that’s new and interesting.
As much as The Mobfathers functions as a straight-ahead Hong Kong gangster film, it is also overtly political. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with local politics will see The Mobfathers as an allegory for Hong Kong’s current situation. It even peeks over the fourth wall when a character bemoans the way politics has found its way into everything in Hong Kong. As another character states, even buying vegetables in the wet market is political nowadays, and he’s right. So at least Mobfathers lets you know up front that it is politically loaded.
In fact, it happens even before the movie proper starts. Mobfathers was produced by Chapman To, who also stars in the film. He was allegedly blacklisted in China for remarks he made about the Occupy protests and Taiwan. His production company is called Hong Kong Film.
The entire story can (should?) be read as an allegory for Hong Kong’s political climate, with too many real-life parallels to ignore. The Jing Hing Society’s election committee is only 9 people; the rank and file goo wak jai feel disenfranchised. In a scene that follows, we see Chapman To’s character campaigning on the street in the identical way that real politicians campaign here. One of the jokes in the movie may seem overly simple or even atavistic. But it’s referencing a local politician who said that his party would, and I quote, “try our breast … to improve people’s living hood.”
At one point the police try disperse a group of gangsters, who angrily ask “Can’t we walk and shop here?”, a question frequently posed in Mongkok after the Occupy protests.
But I really don’t want to focus on the political aspect of the film. It’s central, of course, but even if we turn a blind eye to it, there’s still plenty of good stuff to watch in Mobfathers.
One of the things I liked about this movie is how awful most of the people in it are. Most of them are cynical, bitter, unpleasant, unhappy people who are just grating up against each other. Even when they do so in a sexual manner, it’s still… miserable. I didn’t appreciate these sex scenes for being graphic, I appreciated them for being
honest an realistic. There’s a sex scene in a car that’s not mean, but all I could think of is how short both parties must be
to have that much space inside a car.
I really am getting old. But never mind that mawkish nonsense.
As I noted earlier, Herman Yau can get some great performances out of his actors. Kenny Wong plays a police inspector whose attitude, methods, and motivations fit right into the tone of the film. The ever-reliable Tony Ho also appears as a middle-management gangster. Another character at the same level is played by the eminently watchable Philip Keung Ho Man, and his performance here is especially noteworthy. As soon as we get Gordon Lam the leading role he deserves, I nominate Philip Keung for next.
The only thing I didn’t really like about Mobfathers is something beyond the director’s control. I’m really annoyed by CGI used for blood. Call me old-fashioned, but squibs are just better looking. Speaking of which, the blood in The Mobfathers may be fake, but each and every one of the titties was real!
There’s also another moment that I thought would have been much more affecting with a prosthetic rather than CG. But it’s still a refreshingly shocking moment, don’t get me wrong.
Speaking of refreshing moments, The Mobfathers allows us to play the official Silver Spleen game “Where is Jane Wong?” Bonus points if you check out her expression during the pertinent scene.
One more thing that may not be priceless but still valued and appreciated: there were a couple times the English subtitles offered some context and clarification for terms used in the dialog.
I really appreciate it, and I know that the people who need subtitles do too, so thank you.