PROJECT GUTENBERG (2018) review

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Project Gutenberg is Felix Chong’s second solo project – that is, away from Alan Mak – after the underrated triad comedy Once a Gangster nine years ago. It follows Lee Man (Aaron Kwok), a painter of mediocre inspiration who discovers that he’s peerless at copying works of art. Soon, he’s hired by Ng Fuk Sang (Chow Yun Fat), aka Painter, the charismatic and ruthless head of a money-counterfeiting gang. Lee quickly becomes an invaluable part of the gang, and though he’s repelled by Painter’s violent ways, he sticks around in the hopes that the rewards showered upon him by the leader, will help him win back the love of his old flame Yuen Man (Zhang Jingchu), a now successful artist. At the same time, the counterfeiting gang is in the crosshairs of Inspector Ho (Catherine Chow) and her team.

Project Gutenberg wants to be a few things at the same time, and often succeeds. As an examination of money counterfeiting it’s gripping: going into fascinating detail on the tricks of the trade, with considerations of paper texture, ink color, patterns, watermarks, printing machines, and how to determine and procure all these things. Whether or not it’s true to life, it makes for a fresh and engrossing watch. There’s a few action scenes peppered throughout: a passable armored van ambush, a tight and impactful hotel room shootout, and more memorably, an extravagant bit of heroic bloodshed in a Thai paramilitary compound, as Chow Yun Fat and his team mow down dozens of mercenaries. With the great Li Chung Chi directing the action, the whole scene is gratuitous yet unabashed pleasure.

As a Hong Kong-style twisty thriller though, Project Gutenberg isn’t as satisfying. Its non-linear structure – most of the film is a long flashback, as Kwok’s character makes a confession to the police – is engaging, but only up to the point when we realize that these flashbacks are unreliable. And while that feeds into the film’s rumination on the toll of forgery (in money-making as in life in general), it also makes the big last-reel twists particularly underwhelming; a plot twist is only truly effective when the audience has been fooling itself to some extent, not when it’s been simply lied to. Still, papering over these shortcomings is the radiant presence of Chow Yun Fat, in a role both meaty and elusive, that serves up fan service – the A Better Tomorrow shot, glimpsed in the trailer, where he lights a cigarette with a counterfeit banknote, is not included in the film, but we still see him wielding dual Berettas – while subverting expectations: though we want to love him because he has Chow’s million-dollar smile, Painter is a deeply ambiguous and brutal man, perhaps the darkest character he’s played.

Aaron Kwok, in the more thankless role, nevertheless near matches Chow: their characters are Yin and Yang, an assured rogue and a principled wuss, and it’s a joy to watch them interact. Around them, there’s classy support from Zhang Jingchu as the emotional center of the story, and it’s good to see Liu Kai Chi give a rare understated and highly-effective turn as a member of the gang who befriends Kwok’s character. Joyce Feng shows promise in a role we can’t discuss without spoilers, but poor Alex Fong dies a bit more inside with another bland superior officer character. Jason Kwan’s cinematography goes a bit heavy on the ‘banknote-green’ hues, but Day Tai’s score is quite stylish.

Long Story Short: Project Gutenberg is a spectacular and often engrossing crime thriller, not always as smart as it thinks it is, but powered by Chow Yun Fat’s irrepressible charisma. ***1/3

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2 Comments

  1. Not that you need me to tell you, but this a great review and not just because I completely agree with it.
    By the time you get to a certain bail out the twist is not so much a twist but a confirmation, but I enjoyed how it unfolded. The look on CYF’s face as you find out what’s happened the same time as he does is magic.
    It would have been easy for Aaron Kwok to get forgotten when you’ve got such an amazing CYF performance going on, but I find he gets better and better with each proper serious movie he does.
    I’d go for 4/5 but I’m biased towards an Aaron Kwok movie that doesn’t suck. :)

    Reply
    • Thank you!
      And yes, age becomes Aaron Kwok; in the same role 15 years ago he would have been insufferable.

      Reply

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