Jiang Hu–The Triad Zone


Directed by Dante Lam

Written by Chan Hing-kar and Amy Chin

With Tony Leung Ka-fai, Sandra Ng, Roy Cheung, Chan Fai-hung, Eason Chan, Anthony Wong, Lee San-san, and Eric Tsang.

By Steve Erickson

No matter how global our mass culture becomes, Kipling may have been right when he wrote that East and West would never meet. When American cinephiles discovered the Hong Kong action cinema of the late 80s and early 90s, they were immediately drawn to its irreverence, its “anything goes” mentality; films like Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues and Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio mixed moods and styles with a delightful insouciance notably lacking in Hollywood action fare. But they did so without sacrificing real emotion or serious moral and political content–elements that were often lost on us here.

John Woo’s Hong Kong films are a good example. Americans frequently interpreted their sentiment and over-the-top violence as facetious, yet as film theorist David Bordwell wrote, “Hardcore Hong Kong fans do not come to mock. Rather than reveling in the irony that postmodernists claim is our universal fate, [these fans recognize] a naive, nonconformist honesty missing from the mass-marketed product.” The genre-bending of Hong Kong cinema has since been absorbed into smirky American films like Neil LaBute’s Nurse Betty, but Jiang Hu–The Triad Zone, a 2000 gangster saga by relative newcomer Dante Lam, reminds us how dramatically effective the formula can be. Its tone shifts wildly from goofy comedy to honest reflection, but somehow the two never cancel each other out–in fact, the jarring juxtapositions make the film’s emotion all the more moving.

Jim Yam (Tony Leung Ka-fai of The Lovers) commands the Hung Bo gang, one of four leading “triads” in Hong Kong. He’s surrounded himself with people he trusts: his wife, Sophie (Sandra Ng); his bodyguard, Yue (Roy Cheung); his mistress, Jo Jo (Lee San-san); and his attorney, Wai (Chan Fai-hung). The film opens in a restaurant, where Jim attacks a young punk who’d rather lecture him about IPOs and the coming generation gap than pay his debts. Wine sails across the frame in slow motion, and Jim celebrates his triumph by dancing on the table. But his complacency is short-lived: someone has promised to kill him within the next 24 hours, and as he tries to track down the mysterious assassin he discovers that he doesn’t know his crew as well as he thought.

The film reflects a number of developments in Hong Kong cinema: the rise of romance (Wilson Yip’s Juliet in Love, screening at the Film Center in mid-March), the gangster film’s turn toward youth (Young and Dangerous, which has spawned numerous sequels, prequels, and offshoots), and most important, a more self-conscious attitude toward genre. American directors like LaBute and the Coen brothers often use genre references to mock their characters and assert their own cultural superiority, but the humor in Jiang Hu is more gentle and affectionate, and in synthesizing the romance and the gangster film, Lam creates a genre film that speaks to mortality and the disillusionment of middle age. As Jim hunts for the assassin, he’s revealed as someone trapped between an older generation of men now succumbing to natural causes (one of his rivals is dying of lung cancer, a scene Lam deftly introduces with an extreme close-up of curling cigarette smoke) and a younger generation of gangster wannabes who are even less concerned with ethics than he is.

The screenplay, by Chan Hing-kar and Amy Chin, accommodates many disparate materials, everything from a parody of Johnnie To’s The Mission (1999) to a literal deus ex machina. A touching and intense conversation between Jim and Sophie is followed by the film’s bloodiest scene, a shoot-out from which the couple barely escape with their lives. And after a succession of unusual camera angles and quick cuts, one scene is shot in a single distant take, reminiscent of Edward Yang.

Some of these swerves are unsettling, but the film adds up to more than the sum of its parts. A Taoist god, Master Kwan (Wong), appears in an alley to save Jim from the assassin, but what starts off as a gag begins to resonate as the story progresses. Clad in a blue headdress and a robe that would embarrass Liberace, Kwan accompanies Jim home, explains that he answers prayers at random (just often enough to keep people believing in him), peruses soft-core porn on TV, and sits in on a Hung Bo meeting. Eventually the subplot turns pensive: after Sophie discovers that Jim has a mistress, Kwan laments how much the world has disappointed him. Hilarious comic episodes (a romantic montage of Jim and Sophie mugging people in London) give way to a mood of last-minute regret. Initially Sophie seems like the male fantasy of the icy businesswoman/sexpot, but by the end of the film the pain of her concessions to marriage and gang life are palpable. Once she held a knife to Jim’s throat to dissuade him from moving back to Hong Kong; now she can only express sad resignation that he’s involved with another woman.

Lam has absorbed the visual vocabulary of Hong Kong cinema–canted angles, frantic zooms, freeze frames, jump cuts–but his ravishing style is grounded in genuine human drama, as his characters grapple with the aging process and the realization that, like Jim, their time is running out. With the final twists of Jiang Hu, Lam shows that love of cinema need not lead us into a hall of mirrors. If only he could teach other filmmakers that secret.