MOB SISTER (2005) review

After getting his big break in the Hong Kong film industry with the over-indulgent and gaudy Jiang Hu (aka Triad Underworld), director Wong Ching-Po came back to the world of the Triads with Mob Sister, and once again gathered a who’s who of Hong Kong gangster films, from acting gods and Johnnie To regulars Simon Yam and Anthony Wong Chau Sang to Derek Yee’s go-to actors Alex Fong and Liu Kai-Chi, as well as the omnipresent Eric Tsang, and a representative of the Yuen clan in the person of Yuen Wah. Add to that fresh faces like Annie Liu, up and coming mainland actor (at the time, now he’s well-established) Ye Liu and actress Karena Lam, and you get one of the most intriguing and exciting casts in a while. Annie Liu is Phoebe, the adopted daughter of a kind-hearted mob boss (Eric Tsang), who lives a sheltered life surrounded by her father, her three protective uncles (Yam, Wong, and Fong), and her bodyguard (Ye Liu). But when her father is killed, she is called on to replace him as triad boss. The idea of an innocent teenage girl catapulted into the shoes of a mob boss is pure comedy material, but Wong Ching-Po choses – wisely – to not settle on a particular tone, instead oscillating between whimsical, bittersweet and tragic, and peppering his film with animated sequences that illustrate the “mob sister”‘s feelings.

But as with Jiang Hu, the director simply overdoes everything visually, he fiddles with images to the point of eschewing tension for poetic distortion of time, and emotion for tragic pantomime. It’s a directing choice that has its merits and can prove effective in certain scenes, but in the long run it mainly gives the impression of a film that is too infatuated with its own constant trickery to really lead somewhere. Where the film wins points however, is in its light comedic touches, especially when the three uncles are seen buying presents and rigging musical exams to please Phoebe. It’s great to see charismatic old pros like Anthony Wong or Simon Yam add a sweet, caring dimension to their usual ruthless triad member role. Also, the father/son chemistry between Annie Liu and Eric Tsang is impeccable, and makes for very touching scenes between the two of them.

But where the film really surprises, is in its spiritual overtones, ranging from a very obvious but effective central depiction of Phoebe as a christ-like figure (which I won’t go into because it does comes a slight twist), to the role given to the great Yuen Wah as a former Triad boss who became a monk. In the end, rarely have Hong Kong gangster looked so human and in some cases, soulful. And that’s where Wong Ching-Po manages to make a dent in a usually nihilistic genre.

Long Story Short : Stylistically over-thought and over-indulgent, Mob Sister is nevertheless a fresh take on a well-worn genre. ***

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