'Project Gutenberg': Tokyo Review
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- Screen Daily by Sarah Ward
Nearly two decades after scripting the Infernal Affairs trilogy which has been liberally remade and borrowed from, Felix Chong’s new crime thriller does some pilfering and copying of its own. Spotting Project Gutenberg’s high-profile, largely Hollywood influences isn’t difficult, but derivation is rarely as entertaining as this slick Hong Kong effort about a high-stakes counterfeiting operation — and rarely comes with such compelling and engaging performances from the starry likes of Chow Yun-Fat and Aaron Kwok.
Like Infernal Affairs, it’s easy to see Project Gutenberg swiftly receiving an English-language remake, although the familiarity of one specific part of its narrative — it’d be a major spoiler to say which, however — might hamper its fortunes. In the interim, the film has proven a huge Chinese success, and currently sits 12th at the country’s box office for the entirety of 2018. Already open in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and the US as well, the movie’s latest stop is the Tokyo International Film Festival. Beyond its theatrical run, streaming interest should also be healthy.
Marking Chong’s first stint in the director’s chair in four years, Project Gutenberg sees failed artist turned gifted forger Lee Man (Kwok) spin an intriguing story during a police interrogation. Extradited from a Thai prison by Hong Kong detective Ho Wai-tam (Catherine Chau) and her team, he’s the only surviving member of a crack counterfeiting squad other than the elusive mastermind, who’s known only as Painter (Chow). The cops expect Lee to spill everything that he knows about his boss, and they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that’s the case. Eventually he does — and what a tale he has to tell — but only after the enigmatic Yuen Man (Zhang Jingchu) helps loosen his lips.
Lee’s story starts in Vancouver, where he catches Painter’s eye with convincing knock-offs of artistic masterpieces. Soon he’s on the charismatic but ruthless kingpin’s globetrotting crew, helping to create a counterfeit U.S. ’superdollar’ that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. It’s an elaborate job, which Chong stages, shoots and packages with the tension and flair of a heist film. But the more immersed that the quiet, gentle and somewhat awkward Lee gets in his new employer’s increasingly cutthroat operations, the more apprehensive he becomes. Now, reluctantly talking to Ho, he’s certain that Painter will arrive any moment to silence him.
Chong’s penchant for suspense and set-pieces gets a rousing outlet here, even if he’s happy to stick to a narrative template. This isn’t a sly take on the cost of survival, or even a moral musing on the thin line between right and wrong — although it superficially leans in both directions — but a busy and rollicking action caper layered with the mood of the filmmaker’s most famous works.
A particularly bold mid-movie hold-up grabs attention, while glossy, purposefully faded cinematography by Jason Kwan (The Last Tycoon) and fast-paced editing from Curran Pang (Infernal Affairs) give the film a suitably twisty but energetic sheen. That said, late-stage bloat becomes evident once the story’s secrets start to unravel, as does the presence of a few too many endings.
Still, with Kwok and Chow leading the charge, spending more time in this sleek but shady world is never a drag. While Chau and Zhang impress in their smaller but no less significant roles, the battle between Project Gutenberg’s two main stars is always the main attraction. Kwok plays uncertain but determined with convincing jumpiness, and Chow — enjoyably in both smouldering and sinister modes — gets the best big-screen showcase he’s had in years. When the film gets a little too brazen and obvious elsewhere, Kwok and Chow keep it from sinking too deep.
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