Monday, December 09, 2019

Trivisa on Shudder

It is 1997, the year Mainland China and the United Kingdom agreed to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, establishing a separate system of governance for Hong Kong for the next fifty years. Today, both nations are trying to forget 1997 ever happened. As the handover loomed, three notorious real-life gangsters assumed the new regime would crack down on their business. Little did they know the CCP would appoint an HK Chief of Police who was a reputed Triad associate—allegedly—[cough]. Given the mounting uncertainty, they hope to complete one big score—perhaps even together in Frank Hui, Jevons Au & Vicky Wong’s Trivisa, co-produced by the legendary Johnnie To, which premieres today on Shudder.

In 1997, the so-called “The Kings of Thieves” are all at a career crossroads. Kwai Ching-hung has survived as an armed bandit, despite the bloody opening shootout, because he generally focuses on smaller, manageable targets. However, that means he does not have much of a nest egg to fall back on.

In contrast, Yip Kwok-foon has pulled off some spectacularly lucrative jobs, but the resulting heat forced him to retire to the Mainland, where he runs a consumer electronics smuggling operation. It is a profitable business, but he must constantly bribe the Mainland cops, who go out of their way to belittle him.

Cheuk Tze-keung is still pulling off jobs in Hong Kong, but his boredom and arrogance are causing him to be increasingly reckless. Of the “Three Kings,” he is the most interested in the rumor they will be joining forces for an end-of-an-era gig, which did not originate with any of the trio in question. In fact, he starts offering a reward for information on the whereabouts of his other two colleagues, but he is scrupulously careful vetting tips, to keep the cops in the dark.

The Sanskrit title Trivisa is a bit too obscure, but do not let that dissuade you from this jolly dark and ironic gangster thriller. It is a reference to the “three poisons:” greed, anger, and delusion. Consider it the “Three Deadly Sins” instead. Indeed, this film really is about threes, because the trio of co-directors, Hui, Au, and Wong each focused on their own focal character: Kwai, Yip, and Chuek, respectively. Yet, even with the three directors working with their own cinematographers, the film feels very much like a consistent whole.

As Kwai, Gordon Lam Ka-tung simmers and slow-burns until he practically spontaneously combusts. However, Richie Jen is somehow even more explosively unstable as Yip. Jordan Chan is the more comic of the three, chewing the scenery with evil glee as the outrageous Cheuk. Of course, there are plenty of colorful HK character actors (but not so many actresses), including To’s usual suspect Lam Suet, playing Boss Fong, Yip’s fixer with the Chinese cops. Perhaps the best work comes from Philip Keung playing Kwai’s now-reformed sworn-brother Fai.

Trivisa was banned by the CCP and they subsequently blocked the televised broadcast when it won best picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards, so you know it must be good—and it definitely is. It shines a searing spotlight on Mainland corruption (that they have since done their best to institutionalize in HK as well), while maintaining the tension of the underworld intrigue. Ultimately, the trio of helmers elevate the gangster tragedy to the classical levels To attained with iconic films like the Election duology. Very highly recommended, Trivisa starts streaming today on Shudder.