“Gangster Pay Day” (大茶飯) – 2014 Busan Film Review

In “Gangster Pay Day” – the closing film of the 2014 Busan International Film Festival – director Lee Po Cheung wanted to present a different angle on the stereotypical Hong Kong triad movie.  “I believe when watching many gangster films, usually the main characters are very evilly portrayed,” Lee said through a translator at a press conference on Oct. 10.  “All of those terrifying images, I did not want to reveal them.  I [instead] wanted to talk about their daily struggles.”

With that, Lee rolled the dice in his third feature film, offering a mix of genres to show his triad characters navigating through life when not ordering hits.  At times it results in a romantic comedy, with aging boss Wong Kam-Kwei (nicknamed “Ghost,” played by Anthony Wong) vying with his junior triad member Leung (Wong You Nam) for the attention of the same girl, Mei (Charlene Choi).  Other times, it is a straight-up gangster film focusing on a family feud as Ghost haggles with his cousin Bill, who heads a rival triad, over real estate and business opportunities.  In fact, “Gangster Pay Day” even manages to be an educational food film of sorts.  The Chinese title of the film is 大茶飯, which literally translates to “big tea food,” and much of the setting focuses on the cha chaan teng (Cantonese for “tea restaurant”) owned by Mei that is a model of the decades-old, hybrid Western-Hong Kong diners that still can be found all over the city today.  Ghost and his crew eventually become regular patrons of Mei’s cha chaan teng following a fight with Bill’s group in his karaoke club, which leaves Mei – the coincidental witness as the frightened food delivery girl – concerned for Leung, who is injured in the attack.  Food consumption leads to Ghost’s eager business interest in Mei’s establishment, which naturally tangles with Bill’s plans.  When was the last time that you saw advice in a gangster film on how to make the perfect bolo bao (pineapple bun, a Hong Kong bakery staple that Mei helpfully explains does not actually contain pineapple) – with that same gangster film showing Anthony Wong gleefully take pictures of food?

These genres all play out in a narrative that, while inevitably uneven at times when swaying from humor to violence, somehow works out in the end.  A large part of its success is due to the easy rapport between the three leads, who last worked together on the film “Just One Look” in 2002.  Once again playing love interests, Wong You Nam and Choi show a maturity in their roles that comes with age, whereas Anthony Wong nails the part of the three-dimensional tough guy with goofball charm.  Neither a comedy nor a drama throughout, one has to applaud Lee’s approach in going against the norm of such films in Hong Kong cinema.

“Gangster Pay Day” makes its world premiere at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival on Oct. 11. For more information, go to biff.kr. The film will also screen at the San Diego Asian Film Festival on Nov. 13.


Video: “Gangster Pay Day” press conference greetings – 2014 Busan International Film Festival
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Director Lee Po Cheung, producer Shirley Yung, and actors Carrie Ng Ka Lai and Wong You Nam greet the press at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival on Oct. 10. In Korean and Mandarin.