Friday, 2 November 2018

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison tracks down Chow Yun-fat in PROJECT GUTENBERG (Felix Chong, China, 2018)

At two hours plus with lots location shooting and elaborate effects work to swell the budget, along with one of China’s few recognised international stars, the long surviving Chow Yun-fat, Project Gutenberg is a big picture. A lot of hopes including mine were invested in it.

The plot is complex to the point of indecipherable. Aaron Kwok is in a Thai jail monkeying with the prisoner mail racket and cops headed by trim Catherine Chau (wait long enough and she gets into a bikini) fly him out to help them crack an operation counterfeiting the new US hundred dollar bills. Aaron is terrified that  collaboration  with the police will have him and anyone around him taken out at the hands of a master criminal called “The Painter” in which guise we encounter Chow who has been glimpsed at intervals already.

The police interrogation room explodes but they play that backward to get things on track.

The best part of the film flashes back through Kwok’s past as a failed artist
overshadowed by his glamorous squeeze Jingchu Zhang, complete with extreme close ups of calligraphy brush strokes and comparisons with Durer engravings. The observations on art in this segment are as good as anything in The Square.  It has the striking image of Kwok’s one painting blazing away in the gallery as the manager rushes up with an extinguisher.

Chow Yun-fat, Aaron Kwok, Project Gutenberg
The film however takes another tack as Chow waves his c-note. From then on it’s the usual forgery saga drawing on the lore established by films like Anthony Mann’s 1947 T-Men, Roger Vadim’s 1981The Hot Touch or Stefan Ruzowitzky’s 2007 Der Falscher/ The Counterfeiters. We get passable documentation of the difficulties of making fake money (fading ink, three layer paper, moiring) interspersed with the gang shooting up Canadian armored cars or exploding a Thai jungle military camp with its single elephant and falling victim to internal breaches of the villain’s code.

There’s a bit of stuff about Kwok not making it as a leading man in his own life story - very Brian De Palma, like Denis Byrd in his 1979 Home Movies or Charlie Sheen in Wall Street. In fact the whole film is full of things evoking other and better movies - Chow does his signature moves, firing two machine guns at the same time or gleefully setting fire to the bank note.

Project Gutenberg does come up with one commanding fresh idea, which pulls its more ragged bits together. The last shot of Chow taking tea is particularly nice but it’s a long time coming.

Directed by the writer of the Infernal Affairs films, this one doesn’t involve. Chow Yun-fat keeps on doing his great bits of attention getting business. He is recognisably one of the great star actors of last century. However, the days when his presence in a movie would repay a visit have gone, along with the great popular entertainment machine which was the seventies and eighties Hong Kong film industry.

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