When triad boss Kerosene (Alex Fong) decides to retire due to crippling debts, he names Roast Pork (Jordan Chan) his successor, but the latter doesn’t want the job : though a fearless henchman, his true calling is as a chef and restaurant owner alongside his wife (Michelle Ye) and kids. Another contender is Swallow (Eking Cheng) who just got out of jail after a 20-year sentence for killing a snitch to cover his comrades, and who’s being actively championed by his drug addict mother (Candice Yu). But Swallow doesn’t want the job either : while in prison he’s become passionate about economics and plans to earn a master’s degree. The final contender is Scissors (Conroy Chan), a triad goon so incompetent that he’s the only one not to realize that his right-hand man Chen (Wilfred Lau) is blatantly an equally incompetent undercover cop. Reluctant contenders and overeager challengers are now set on a collision course.
Once a Gangster is Felix Chong’s loving send-up of the often overlapping triad and undercover cop genres. Famously, Chong helped those genres peak both locally and internationally with the Infernal Affairs trilogy which he co-wrote with his longtime creative partner Alan Mak (who only acts as a producer on Once a Gangster). Outside of Infernal Affairs, which is spoofed directly and hilariously through Wilfred Lau’s character who is a bafflingly retarded version of Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s character (he makes calls to his superior officer within earshot of his triad colleagues for instance), the film also refers to the successful Young and Dangerous franchise of the nineties by casting its two leads Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan, and to Johnnie To’s Election diptych by being set during a triad election. Those are only the most obvious references, as there are some that are either lost in translation or too obscure for this reviewer to grasp them. A Hong-konger or a more knowledgeable Hong Kong film fan will probably find more to chew on.
Still, with knowledge of these three main references, Once a Gangster is a very amusing and spirited little film that is full of love for the tropes it sends up, and transcends an apparently low budget with a very entertaining cast. Though Ekin Cheng is absent from the film’s first half, his performance as a mellowed triad thug has a warmth and soulfulness that is welcome from this often wooden actor. Age becomes Ekin Cheng. Jordan Chan is excellent in the kind of whiny but courageous character in which he often excels, and his chemistry with Ekin Cheng is saved for a handful of nice moments the final reel, as a kind of pay-off. Conroy Chan and Wilfred Lau are a great comedic double-act, while Alex Fong bring both pathetic poignancy and sly irresponsibility to his mob boss role. The film is often tonally muddled, which means it can be strangely sanitized in certain ways (no one smokes in the triads, apparently), and surprisingly vicious in others (one characters gets hacked to pieces for a few uncomfortable minutes), and its low budget means it often look quite flat, but in the end it remains a likeable, entertaining little footnote to Hong Kong’s beloved sub-genres.
Long Story Short : Despite low production values and tonal inconsistencies, Once a Gangster is a clever, often funny but more importantly, loving send-up of typical sub-genres of Hong Kong cinema. ***