Dispensing with the introduction of the film title until about forty minutes into it, Herman Yau’s The Mobfathers opts to plunge immediately into a bloody, senseless fight among triads, interspersed with news of a pregnancy. In other words, one, there is no subtlety to be found in this world, and two, family is family but triad is Family. Fast-forward five years later and the head of one of the fighting factions, Chuck (Chapman To) is in jail while the friend whose life he saved during said fight, Luke (Philip Keung), looks after his wife and son. Yet he is released, only to be confronted with an estranged, resentful wife (Bonnie Sin), a son whom he has never met, and the challenge of keeping up the facade of a ‘normal’ family whose foremost concern is getting the son to a top-rated school. The time of Chuck’s release also coincides with another type of family shift: the run towards the election of a new ‘Dragon Head’ of the Jing Hing triad society of which he is a devoted member. Filled with a new energy following his release and unbridled ambition stoked by intermittent encounters with a showgirl-seductress, not to mention the desire to escape his personal problems, Chuck’s exclusive goal is to be a Dragon Head candidate; in the end, however, it actually ends up further aggravating and sacrificing both his personal and triad family ties.
Overseeing the process of the election are the senior heads of Jing Hing, among whom is the all-seeing, all-ruling eye of the Godfather (Anthony Wong). For his part, Godfather is intent on following tradition when it comes to the election and, given the cancer diagnosis early in the film that puts his life plans under duress, expediting the process that would favour the maintenance of his power as much as possible. When another faction head, Wulf (Gregory Wong), expresses a readiness and madness that matches Chuck’s to win the Dragon Head title for himself, all the cogs are in place for an underworld implosion.
While the first forty minutes make for engaging viewing, as the characters, relationships, context, and motivations are drawn, by itself the infighting and power struggle that occupy the rest of the running time become much too repetitive. In the process, the film becomes unintentionally too senseless for its own good.
In short, the film is bloody, messy, exaggerated, excessive, and wonky at the level of storytelling and performance. Anthony Wong plays the Godfather with such gravitas that it has the unintended effect of being parodic (down to his sandpaper voice that clearly echoes Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone); To’s acting chops prove to be insufficient to play a lead character, excelling at avoiding subtlety in league with the film’s head-on depiction of violence; and Gregory Wong overplays the homosexually coded Wulf so that it is cartoonish instead of a character. In addition, the struggle for power is not persuasive; it is buried beneath sensationalistic or throwaway scenes, mostly involving female characters whose only purpose is to help define the male characters. To her credit, Sin as Chuck’s wife is notable, but her role does not allow her to fully demonstrate what she is capable of. In truth, the only sympathetic characters in the film are Chuck’s wife and Luke, due in part to more subtle performances by the actors. Keung has a commanding onscreen presence and the ability to convey diverse emotional hues without dialogue, present only intermittently since Luke is a secondary character. Again, there is no subtlety to be found in this world; if there is, it does not last long, in the story and in its representation.
But (with a tough machete like so many characters in the film) if one cuts through the layers of arguments, misunderstandings, killings, and backstabbing plots among the different factions of Jing Hing that are splattered throughout the film in support of their respective bosses for the Dragon Head title, one may find that the film is ultimately about the friction between Chuck and Godfather, the former eventually calling for the more democratic one-person, one-vote method for the election and the latter contemplating this shift and its consequences on his hold over the organisation. At bottom, then, the film is a meditation on social tradition and adaptation, for the sake of the collective, Hong Kong-style: bloody, messy, exaggerated, excessive, and wonky.
As such, the film is an unapologetic throwback to 1980s-1990s Hong Kong genre-mixing. It also just happens to explicitly poke at the Hong Kong-mainland China tensions that have been boiling since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, beginning with actors Anthony Wong and To playing the lead characters (with To doubling as producer). That Wong and To are on a list of banned artists in mainland China for their vocal support of the 2014 Hong Kong protestors is no secret. The film’s narrative kernel of electoral reform within the triad initiated by To’s character becomes a thinly veiled nod to the fact that the 2014 protests began due to discontent with regards to Beijing-proposed electoral reforms in Hong Kong. In this context, the power struggle becomes all too real.
The Mobfathers is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Monday July 4 at 6:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.