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Project Gutenberg
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jay Seaver

"Not quite classic Hong Kong action, but not a counterfeit."
3 stars

Movie stars don't exactly age just like the rest of us - even the ones who don't go in for surgery have personal trainers and agents and paparazzi and on-screen persona who in some way give them a harder push one way or another than those of us who only gradually realize that we're not quite the way we see ourselves in our heads anymore. Some go gray and bulk up to become on-screen dads, some defy the aging process and keep doing what they're doing, and some, like one-time international superstar Chow Yun-fat, lose the soft features that made them baby-faced anti-heroes and become lean, weathered villains. It's a transformation that suits him for most of "Project Gutenberg", although the rest of the film doesn't catch up to his comfort level until it's almost too late.

Chow plays Ng Fuk Seung, the head of an international counterfeiting syndicate known to law enforcement in the late 1990s only as "Painter", whose "Superdollar" is a replica of the U.S. hundred-dollar bill that is uncannily good despite the impressive new security measures that were added with its recent redesign. He's unknown in large part because everyone who worked with him has wound up dead, except for Lee Man (Aaron Kwok Fu-sing), currently rotting in a Thai prison, and he doesn't want to talk for fear Painter will kill them all. But Hong Kong detective Ho Wai-lan (Catherine Chu Ka-yee) is determined, and then there's Yuen Man (Zhang Jing-chu), an internationally famous artist whose fiancé was killed by Ng (as was Ho's boyfriend and colleague, in the same incident), but who was close to Lee back when they were starving artists in Vancouver and so offers to post bail. So, he begins there…

… and it's a strange, somewhat disjointed story that writer/director Felix Chong Man-keung has Lee Man tell, one which starts with art criticism and then dives into deep, likely fictitious detail about how one goes about counterfeiting a hundred-dollar bill before getting back to Painter's apparent obsession with making sure that Lee Man can reunite with Yuen Man, and then, just as the story is starting to catch up to the bloody events that made Painter a high-priority target all around the world, the story gets another wrinkle that is injected so casually that it's fair for the viewer to wonder if they missed something important in the middle of Painter's weird commentary on whether Lee has what it takes to be the leading man of his own story. It's a script that often seems much too crowded for its own good, with too much detail in some places and not enough in others.

There is, ultimately, reason for that, although the movie can sometimes play as a warning against getting too ambitious because of its own execution rather than the characters' hubris. Chong takes his story about a forger who became a counterfeiter and introduces other types of fraud and imitation, and it's a nifty idea as this side of the movie starts to reveal itself. The magic trick isn't presented as well as one might hope, though - too much comes across as weird early, when the things that don't quite add up should have some camouflage, and holding other things back arguably creates a more interesting situation without enough time to poke at it. Chong seems to be grasping for something about anonymity, identity, and making imitations, but it never comes together into a truly coherent theme, even by the end.

His cast does what they can, though, and you can't really fault the work of Aaron Kwok in particular. Lee Man can easily be a sort of audience placeholder, there to have things explained to him and make the viewer see how Painter is larger than life, and he does that, but there's some good nuance to how he always seems to be looking for approval and validation. Zhang Jingchu does neat work too - it's not just that she has nice chemistry with Kwok, but how she presents Yuen Man in the flashback as opposed to the present - one can get a sense that maybe her devotion in those scenes is partially a product of Lee Man's narration, but it never becomes a parody. She's always got just the right expression when the story dips back into the present from Lee Man's flashbacks. And then, of course, there's Chow Yun-fat, given a master criminal to play and seeming to relish the fact that, since he's only going to be seen in flashbacks and fantasies for most of the movie, he can play Painter as the figure that frightens Lee Man, quippy, sarcastic, and able to be both ruthlessly business-like and maniacal, rather than a more down-to-Earth gangster.

Plus, Chow still seems to know his way around a gunfight as well as anyone ever has. Most of the credit for those scenes goes to Chong and action director Nicky Li Chung-chi, but they are well-aware of his iconography (one half-suspects the film was inspired by the image of him lighting a cigar with a $100 bill in A Better Tomorrow; a recreation of that was all over the advertising). Chong promises bloodbaths in the dialogue but holds them far enough back that the audience is almost giddy with anticipation when a couple situations get to the point where they're about to blow up, and doesn't fail to deliver: The central shootouts are big and cast-reducing, with the sort of outcomes that makes it clear that things have changed afterwards, but they're also fun to watch, strings of movements that feel precise, measured, and confident in the midst of the chaos of explosions and impacts. The main image of the film's centerpiece sequence is Chow's Painter standing straight and tall with his gun arm at full extension, as big as he can be in a situation where mere mortals try and make themselves as small as possible.

Is it impossible and ridiculous? Of course, but Painter is talking about leading men and making something better than real from the start, and by the time the movie is over, it's clearly about the legend as much as the reality of its plot, and in fact always has been. Chong doesn't do the best job getting there, but he does well enough to make the movie worth a second viewing to see if it maybe holds together better than first appearances suggest.

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originally posted: 10/09/18 04:04:32
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  04-Oct-2018 (MA)

Directed by
  Felix Chong

Written by
  Felix Chong

  Yun-Fat Chow
  Aaron Kowk
  Jingchu Zhang
  Joyce Feng
  Kai Chi Liu
  Catherine Chau

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