In the realm of Asian crime drama, the Hong Kong thriller "Triad Underworld" (Gong wu) has never been considered a stand-out in a very overcrowded genre. Maybe that's why this 2004 release hasn't had a North American distribution deal until now. It's a shame really--far less interesting movies have made that leap in a much quicker timeframe. Nevertheless, those that enjoy the genre should find this an appealing addition. In truth, nothing in regard to plotting hasn't been covered in countless other films--but the movie succeeds with a narrative sleight-of-hand that is very effective. It's a surprisingly clever film with impassioned performances and good action set pieces. That makes it an easy recommendation for fans of Triad mayhem. If these Asian shoot-em-ups, however, are not you're cup of tea--you might want to start with some of the classic examples of the genre to get your feet wet.
One of my favorites, Andy Lau, plays the mob boss. When a hit is ordered on his life, the grounded leader must contend with his volatile best friend (Jacky Cheung) and a trio of opportunistic associates. Lau and Cheung, having grown up together, have very different management styles and there is heated discourse about the best way to handle the complexities of the night before them. The scenes between the friends have an escalating tension that is riveting. The highpoint of the entire movie is a dramatic discussion at a dinner table that seems to be floating through the air. It's a simple visual device that ratchets up the drama in an extraordinary way. In addition to this story, we also see a young gangster who agrees to take on his first hit. As a single evening unfolds, everyone must contend with the violence that being a part of the Triad brings--and a final bloody showdown is orchestrated with precision.
More than anything, the film's screenplay holds the tale and its intricacies in check. It is smart and twisty enough to entertain even the most jaded of fans. All the performers are terrific, but I especially enjoyed the ferocity that Cheung brings to the table. It is a great counterpoint to the more level headed Lau. The movie begins on a very chaotic note as it introduces all of its characters. In fact, it took a little while for the film to find the right balance--but once it settles into the main story line, the actors are allowed to really sell the narrative. I quite enjoyed "Triad Underworld." Once it takes hold, you'll go with it until the bloody and surprising finale. KGHarris, 9/11.