Hong Kong cinema used to be famous for its originality. Nowhere made a comedy like one of Stephen Chow’s mo lei tau movies or produced films with the distinct visual style of Wong Kar-wai. Even those local elements that didn’t find favour with international critics, such as the jarring genre hopping or the rapid-fire editing, were nonetheless hallmarks of a particular Hong Kong cinematic style.
What makes Project Gutenberg so disappointing is how much it borrows from Hollywood. The film’s big twist, and even its initial setup is borrowed from a certain movie that shall remain nameless, in order to avoid spoilers. That lack of originality is sad for a Hong Kong film that boasts the talents of Chow Yun-fat, Aaron Kwok and director Felix Chong, the writer of Infernal Affairs.
The action begins with Lee Man (Kwok), a counterfeit artist, incarcerated in a Thai jail. He’s soon hauled out and bundled on a plane to Hong Kong to assist with an investigation looking to nail Painter (Chow), the mysterious head of a counterfeit banknote organisation of which Lee was formerly a member. With no leads and little information on Painter, the police interrogate Lee, who recounts how he met Painter and the illegal activities that followed.
All the way through, there’s a nagging suspicion that this is the kind of movie that Hollywood would do better. The intricacies of crime are never explained as smoothly as, say, American Gangster; the globetrotting is never as lavish as in the Mission Impossible franchise; the plot twist isn’t as stunning as its inspiration; even the action – which Hong Kong used to excel at – isn’t as exciting as John Wick. Sure, Hollywood budgets are huge, but Hong Kong used to be able to do more with less. After all, who really thinks The Departed is better than the director’s own Infernal Affairs?
The film isn’t helped by a bloated 131-minute runtime and pacing that takes some time to reach full speed. At one stage early on in his interrogation, as Lee recounts his days as a struggling artist, one character snaps, “I’m not interested in this, move on.” Clearly, the filmmakers should have taken their own advice. Thankfully, the acting is excellent. Kwok excels as a jumpy artist out of his depth in the criminal underworld, even if, for much of the film, one wonders what he’s doing there. Chow too is on typically fine form – suave as only he can be, and when he brings out twin handguns to despatch an army of onrushing enemies, it’s a high point.
Perhaps in a film centred around counterfeiting the notion of one film borrowing heavily from others shouldn’t be an issue. Yet there’s a difference between appreciation and imitation. Lost in Translation may have sought to ape the mood of a Wong Kar-wai flick but it didn’t lift plot elements wholesale. Nowhere is this lack of originality more obvious than in a promotional image for Project Gutenberg that, wisely, isn’t in the film. A direct copy of one of Chow’s most famous scenes, it shows the actor lighting a cigarette with a US$100 note, just like his character did more than 30 years ago in A Better Tomorrow. Although dialogue in Project Gutenberg makes the claim that a fake can sometimes surpass the original, that’s not true of this copycat.