Set in Shanghai’s gangster era of the early 20th century, The Last Tycoon is the latest film from Wong Jing — Hong Kong’s most prolific and successful filmmaker, aka “the King of Crappy Cinema” — and while his filmography is certainly nothing to boast of, the intriguing story and talent he has on board here plus the promising trailer suggested something above his regular fare. Unfortunately this is not the case, even with Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) producing and Jing reuniting with his God of Gamblers star Chow Yun-Fat to chronicle the three-decade rise and fall of real-life gangster Cheng Daqi.
We first meet Cheng as a young man (Huang Xiaoming) in Hong Kong, 1913, as he is framed by a dirty cop. When his life is saved by a shady soldier, Mao Zai (a slimy Francis Ng), Cheng is ordered to murder the cop to pay his debt. Forced to flee to Shanghai, Cheng quickly and violently moves his way up the ladder of the criminal underworld and soon becomes the right-hand man of crime lord Hong Shouting (martial arts legend Sammo Hung), while his sweetheart Zhiqiu (Feng Wenjuan) moves to Beijing to study opera. The film seesaws between these early scenes and the build up to the 1937 Japanese invasion, with Cheng (Yun-Fat) now the most powerful man in Shanghai and married to a beautiful young woman (Monica Mok), but things become complicated when Mao requests that he assassinate an alleged traitor. Cheng discovers that this man is the communist husband (Xin Boqing) of his beloved Zhiqiu (Yolanda Yuan) — now a glamourous opera star — and with additional pressure coming from Japanese commander Nishino (Yasuaki Kurata), his patriotism, marriage and friendships are all put to the test with the invasion as a dramatic backdrop. While this could have made for a compelling narrative — especially with the charismatic Yun-Fat in the lead — Jing’s film awkwardly veers between cringeworthy melodrama and loud, clumsily executed action sequences. The visual effects are unbelievably cheap and nasty during the battle scenes, Jing never seems to know what to do with his camera throughout, and the formulaic plotting and bafflingly inconsistent characters do no favours to the ensemble cast.
Did I mention it was loud? The sound editing is so amateur that every action scene is unpleasantly peaking, causing constant crackling in the speakers of the cinema. Following Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk’s similarly hyped and bitterly disappointing Cold War, I’ve been hanging out for some fresh and exciting cinema out of Hong Kong, but The Last Tycoon definitely isn’t it. Jing seems to be striving for some kind of middle ground here between the effortless cool of John Woo and Johnnie To’s stylish action entries and the sweeping scope of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige’s epic historical dramas, but he lacks the requisite skill and grace to pull it off and the result is a frustrating mess.
The Last Tycoon is out this week at Hoyts and Academy cinemas. Watch the latest trailer below.