The Attorney (一级指控, Wong Kwok-fai, 2019)

The Attorney poster 1What price justice? Wong Kwok-fai’s legal thriller The Attorney (一级指控) puts an unequal society on trial but discovers that to beat shadiness you might need to get a little shady and a healthy bit of deviousness may serve you well if it’s offered in service of a noble ideal. Then again, it’s a slippery slope towards the abyss if even the proponents of law aren’t above a little judicial finagling to ensure that “justice” gets done in a society which continues to defer to those with the biggest pockets rather than protecting those of meagre means.

We meet our two attorney heroes in the middle of their respective cases. Jaded hot shot Lei You Hui (Alex Fong Chung-sun) is defending a journalist who broke an important story about corruption in the competition for places at prestigious schools from a defamation charge, while the idealist rookie Kelvin (Carlos Chan) is defending a frail old woman held up on a charge of operating without a proper business licence. Lei wins his case, and Kelvin loses. Lei mocks Kelvin’s lack of success, and Kelvin has only contempt for Lei’s cavalier attitude towards the upholding of justice.

The action begins when a 25-year-old man, Lee, is found lying in a pool of blood next to the dead body of a young woman, Ka-yee, who is later discovered to be the daughter of a billionaire businessman, Kwok (Liu Kai-chi). The case seems open and shut. Lee claims he passed out and found the body when he woke up but the circumstantial evidence against him is overwhelming. His grandmother, Chu (Nina Paw Hee-ching), of course believes that he is innocent and enlists the best lawyers she can get access to, leading her to a solicitor who introduces her to Kelvin who is determined to see that the young man gets a fair trial. Lei, meanwhile, has a personal interest in the case in that his late wife was killed in a shopping mall collapse 10 years previously which also took the lives of Lee’s parents. Lei prosecuted a class action law suit, but lost. The shopping mall was constructed by Kwok’s company, which gives him an additional reason to want to help aside from trying to make things up to Lee and Chu whom he feels he failed all those years ago. 

Wong wastes no time in demonstrating that “justice” is a nebulous concept when society is necessarily set up to benefit the rich. Ka-yee’s body was discovered in a building belonging to a property magnate, Tsai Chi-wai (Patrick Tam), who is currently running for political office on a platform of equality for all. Chi-wai is, however, a member of the super rich elite who believes he can do as he pleases because he is protected by his wealth and privilege. Lee, by contrast, is a poor boy delinquent who ordinarily wouldn’t have access to a fancy lawyer to clear his name and most likely would have been torn apart by the elite prosecutor those with vested interests have ensured is attached to the case even though it’s a simple enough affair. 

Yet, as Lei discovers, the roots of corruption lie in the understandable desire to protect one’s children even when they’ve made terrible mistakes. Meeting with Chi-wai’s smarmy father, he discovers a man who talks up his youthful high ideals of union activities and working for the workers but later emphasises his hard won cynicism in insisting that no one with a brain seriously believes in things like truth and justice, only self interest. Tsai wants to protect his son at all costs, if only to protect himself by getting his boy into high office. Meanwhile, Kwok is left with questions about his own responsibility for his daughter’s death. If having literally billions in the bank can’t keep your little girl alive, then what use are they?

Then again, having billions in the bank is pretty useful leverage for getting your own way even if you eventually have a change of heart about enabling societal corruption. Chi-wai snarls that you need to be smart to survive, but according to Kelvin saving lives is more important than winning. Lei, who had given up his lofty ideals after being unable to get “justice” for his wife’s death begins to regain his faith in the law thanks to Kelvin’s influence and the accidental coincidence of getting a kind of revenge on Kwok by showing him the error of his ways in illuminating the truth behind his daughter’s death. To do that, however, he’ll have to bend the law a little which leaves him a compromised figure if for the best of reasons as he wilfully demonstrates the flaws in a legal system which is in itself inherently corrupt in its avowal that everyone is equal before the law while ignoring the fact that not everyone has access to the same level of “justice”. Wong’s conclusion may be a little rosy as even the most jaded of legal minds finds himself minded to rebel against the system, but there’s no denying his purpose as Lei decides to protect his daughter by protecting his society from the forces which threaten to blacken her future.


The Attorney screens in Chicago on Oct. 10 as the closing night gala of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema. Actor Kenneth Tsang Kong, scriptwriter Frances To, and xxecutive producer Cherrie Lau will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Project Gutenberg (無雙, Felix Chong, 2018)

Project Gutenburg poster“Sometimes a fake can be better than the real thing” intones mild mannered counterfeiter Lee Man in Felix Chong’s cineliterate thriller Project Gutenberg (無雙) . At first glance, Project Gutenberg would seem to have nothing at all in common with the archival programme from which it takes its name but perhaps there is something in its continual questioning of whether a facsimile can replace an original. Chong plays with perception, narrative, and a human need for authenticity but most of all with the legacy of heroic bloodshed as a melancholy young man attempts to rewrite his own history with himself in the lead.

In the late ‘90s, Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) is languishing in a Thai jail from which he manages to get himself rescued by scraping blue powder off the walls and creating an expert forgery of a postage stamp to send a letter of help. Soon after he gets himself picked up by the Hong Kong police who want his help tracking down a notorious counterfeit currency trafficker known only as “Painter” (Chow Yun-fat). Lee is scared witless because Painter has a habit of ruthlessly hunting down associates who talk – something which is well known to HK police inspector Ho (Catherine Chau) who is after him because he killed her Canadian policeman boyfriend. Painter also murdered the fiancé of Lee’s old flame Yuen (Zhang Jingchu) who is the woman he sent the letter to and who has come to his rescue. Which is to say, the situation is much more emotionally complicated than one might expect.

Through flashback, Lee elaborates on how he came to get mixed up with crime. He and Yuen were living on love in 80s Vancouver trying to make it in the art world. While Yuen’s work began to gain traction, Lee’s was going nowhere. Technically proficient, his paintings were thought soulless and derivative but his talent for mimicry soon brings him to the attention of master forgers and thence to Painter who needs someone with expert skills for his next project – forging the US $100 bill.

Lee tells his tale with melancholy relish, dwelling on his days of youthful abandon with Yuen to the extent that Ho interrupts to declare herself disinterested, advising he skip the prologue and get to the bit where Painter shows up. Painter, a suave yet unpredictable criminal type, determines to help Lee become “the leading man” he knows he can be, but to be fair all anyone is ever interested in is the intensely charismatic Painter. As it turns out, there are more reasons for that than it might at first seem, but in the end Lee’s internalised feelings of inadequacy are still the fuel to his fire. Unable to find artistic success, forgery offers Lee the life of a skilful craftsman and he feels himself to have found his niche but in betraying his artistic integrity he also risks forever losing the woman he loves.

Painter has a weird obsession with Lee’s love life, assuring him that once the deal is done he will help him win back Yuen. “A man who gives up on love is destined to fail at everything” Painter tells him. Lee, however, repeatedly gives up on love. He refuses to fight, embraces his own sense of inferiority, and resolves to live on in misery falling ever deeper into Painter’s world of surrealist crime. Leaving aside Painter’s strangely homoerotic relationship with his protege, Lee’s life gets still more complicated when he becomes involved with a woman, Sau-ching (Joyce Feng), who falls in love with him in Thailand and, for complicated reasons, ends up with Yuen’s face thanks to plastic surgery and name thanks to a fake passport. Painter taunts him with a facsimile of his love but berates him for settling for a substitute while Sau-ching resents getting the Vertigo treatment from a man who refuses to let a failed love fade.

Almost offended by her betrayal of true love, Inspector Ho probes Yuen about her fiancé, asking if he was merely a “substitute” for Lee. Yuen asks if the next man Ho will fall in love with will merely be a “substitute” for her fallen colleague to which Ho fires back that there will never be anyone else because her love is “irreplaceable”. Yuen scoffs at her strangely naive romanticism and Ho does indeed appear to meet an echo of her former love in someone new carried once again on noirish cigarette smoke. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with the old adage goes but it turns out that inauthentic romance is the hardest kind to bear.

Chong lets Lee’s retelling of his history play out like a heroic bloodshed movie in which Chow re-inhabits the classic characters of his youth. An unreliable narrator, the movie in Lee’s mind is one of honour and glory in which he still cannot allow himself to take the lead. Chong over eggs the pudding with a series of twists and reversals, undercutting all that’s gone before and muddying his message in the process but there’s no arguing with his high stakes style as he turns a simple crime story into an interrogation of authenticity and the power of personal myth making.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)