Once Upon a Time in Triad Society II

Reviewed by Kathy Allard

"Rumble in Mongkok Tonight!" could be the title of this movie, which has nothing to do with part 1 except for the same director (Cha Chuen Yee) and star (Francis Ng), and a similar satirical tone, which sends up the serious triad movies of the late 1990s. This movie illustrates many things that HK movies do so well: it combines comedy and satire with surprisingly touching drama and romance. It changes tone quickly, the plot takes unexpected twists and turns, and the characters range from colorful to outrageous and are all well-drawn.

A ticking clock counts down the seconds until the big brawl scheduled between two gangs, and records that day's activities by three couples connected with it: Dagger, a pimp (Francis Ng), and his one girl JJ (Ivy Leung); Dinosaur, a triad wannabe (Roy Cheung), and his loyal girlfriend Deda (Ada Choi); and anti-triad cop Dummy (Cheung Tat-Ming) and his pregnant wife Crystal (Angie Cheung). The characters are all connected and their stories intersect but only two of them meet in person.

Francis Ng and Ivy Leung
Despite his name, all Dagger really wants to do is play mahjongg and yak about his triad status than be involved in any violence or even find clients for JJ, who resorts to drumming up her own business. Walking through a mahjongg parlor, JJ can't even say hi to a player without Dagger's pushing her on ahead and warning her to "Stop seducing him."

While JJ services the one client Dagger has procured for her, we meet two other hilarious characters, Keung, the proprietor of the brothel/hotel, who is also a woman living as a man; and Yan, a man smitten with Dagger and who ends up unfortunately dressed as a woman during the big brawl.

Roy Cheung and Ada Choi
Meanwhile, out in the New Territories, Dinosaur enthralls his small gang of followers with tales of the God of Sword. Their lives are steeped in fantasy and play, not real violence. When they finally get the word to head into town for the big fight, they sharpen their swords and make plans to crash at friend Dagger's place afterward.

And cop Dummy has to deal with his pregnant wife, who wants a divorce, and his superiors, who task him with finding out exactly who's brawling, where and when. This is the quietest and slowest of the three stories: when Dagger's onscreen, he's talking nonstop; with Dinosaur, we hear clanging machetes constantly, but with Dummy and Crystal there's quiet talk and silence. If the film's structure has a weak point, it's that this story is resolved fairly soon and these characters are absent from the last third of the film, whereas the other two stories interconnect almost to the very end.

Cheung Tat-Ming, Angie Cheung, Yan, Keung, Francis and Ivy
The shaky handheld camerawork during the scenes leading up to and during the rumble that forms the centerpiece of the film gives an immediacy and excitement to those scenes, a "you are there" feel that is far removed from the slick, choreographed fights found in the triad movies this one is commenting on. The raucous comedy of the early scenes gives way to the chaos of the brawl itself, which includes numerous shots of scared passersby scurrying to get out of the line of fire and, memorably, a little girl covered with blood and running down the street crying.

Oh, and how does the rumble start? Well, it almost doesn't ... until Dagger inadvertently provokes it and then expends all his energy trying to escape it. There are no heroes in this movie. And though Dinosaur does indeed prove himself to be the God of Sword, the movie says -- so what? What does it get him? (You'll have to watch the movie to see.)

The performances are uniformly excellent. As Dagger, Francis Ng runs the emotional gamut, as well as being riotously funny. Early scenes may lead viewers to expect another loudmouthed, over-the-top performance as Dagger struts around the crowded streets in his high-water pants, declaring that "Every corner of Mongkok is my home." If so, you'll be surprised at his subtlety later: hoping to hide out at his parents' home, he overhears his father telling the police, "I don't take him as my son!" No words for Dagger here; his body language says it all.

When Dagger, again inadvertently, ends up designated to assassinate his gang's rival (while the rest of the gang goes off to play mahjongg), he tries to call his parents to say goodbye ... but he can't remember their number. Ng was unexpectedly touching in this scene, in which he reveals the pathetic lost soul beneath Dagger's swagger.

Roy Cheung - does he ever give a bad performance? Macho leader of his sorry little gang, dedicated boyfriend of Deda. He and Ada Choi have a sweet relationship that contrasts sharply with the bloody mess they end up in. In the behind-the-scenes piece at the end of the VCD, we see the real Roy and realize he's much too old for this role, but onscreen, with his hair in his face and his slumped posture, he pulls it off.

Another huge plus is that the three lead female characters are strong, tough, no-nonsense ladies. Ada Choi as Deda at first comes across as flighty and irresponsible, but when it counts there's no stopping her - she refuses to let Dinosaur go to the rumble without her, and she's tough, resourceful and devoted.

Ivy Leung portrays JJ, the Invincible Chick, as a natural for the down-and-dirty business of hooking. Check out the priceless shocked look on Dagger's face as JJ elatedly shouts, "I can break the record!" of screwing 60 guys in one day, because so many men are milling around waiting for the rumble to start.

Angie Cheung's Crystal at first seemed shrewish to me, but when she has her say I came around to her, as Dummy does. And she does indeed look very cute with her big stomach, overalls and sideways baseball cap

I had zero expectations for this movie, but it surprised and delighted me at every turn. Funny, rapid-fire dialogue, excellent performances, interesting camerawork, great music ... like Dagger, Once Upon a Time in Triad Society 2 uses its brain.

VCD details: the subs often blend in and are hard to read. Some presumably vital dialogue by Dinosaur isn't translated and, at the end, the future of each character is revealed in text that isn't translated. It's so irritating when this happens! The picture is often very dark and muddy. The VCD does contain a brief behind-the-scenes piece. No subs of course, but still fun to watch.

My rating for this film: 9.0