The Last Tycoon is a Chinese film directed by Wong Jing, a director better known for wacky slapstick than serious gangster parables but here we are. Set in Shanghai in the 20s-30s, Chow Yun-Fat plays Cheng Daiqi, a man who in his early years is set up by Jin ShouTing (Sammo Hung) and through these circumstances leaves his lover Qiu (Monica Mok) behind. He adopts his new assumed role in life and through powerful contacts quickly and violently moves his way up the ladder of Shanghai’s criminal underworld to become one of the most powerful mob bosses. Both fame and notoriety overwhelm Chang as years later he faces the looming Japanese invasion and is browbeaten by the Chinese secret service to aid them. Complications continue when Qiu re-enters his life with husband in tow. You have seen this before, a young man through kismet and dubious hard work moves up in life to become a powerful figure, never forgetting his roots. Other films like The Godfather and countless others have done it better, and ultimately this is a vehicle for Chow. The first half is Cheng’s background and brief vignettes of his rise to power and they are engaging enough to keep you for the second-half, where things quickly, violently and viciously escalate.
Chow is spry and strangely looks younger as the older mob boss that is involved in complex power plays with his boss Jin, his current wife and other powerful figures that seek to thwart him. The story quickly becomes political and much more engaging when friends and collaborators turn on each other in unexpected and thrilling ways, all the while the clock is ticking as the Japanese head to Shanghai to occupy it, culminating in a brilliantly executed invasion scene and a set piece that is decimated by the flurry of bombs dropped in the street. It is in this most visceral and immediate scene that a moment of beauty and romance comes together effortlessly and all credit goes to Wong Jing’s direction.
Flash-forward into the 30s and Cheng is a different man affected by the change in regime and the betrayals eventuated due to it. It is in this final part of the film that the tone changes drastically and the outcome is an action packed and highly stylised explosive piece of cinema.
All hail Chow!
However, perhaps too stylized as The Last Tycoon feels overly produced. Every scene gleams and shines with absurd detail and does not feel right for the era so as a result is often very distracting. The action scenes are great and filled with epic sound and fury but the normal more dramatic scenes feel staged, the editing does not help as the film jumps Pulp Fiction style at times from his youth into adulthood and there is no logical reason for it. Despite this, the actors give it their all, particularly Chow as the conflicted gangster Cheng and the results are melodramatic, melancholic and ultimately tragic as you really feel for the guy.
Bullet To The Head? Not quite.
The Last Tycoon is certainly a film that rewards you for sticking with it as the last half really justifies it and is an incredibly staged, tonally shifted extravaganza of melodrama and violently innovative revenge.
Kwenton Bellette - follow Kwenton Twitter here: @Kwenton
The Last Tycoon is playing in Hoyts cinemas now courtesy of Dream Movies Australia.
Kwenton Bellette is extremely passionate about Asian film and the resurgence of new waves taking place in Korea, Japan and China in the last 10 years. He joined the global site Twitchfilm in 2009, is the artistic director of the Fantastic Asia Film Festival is Melbourne and currently studies a film masters degree at Melbourne University. He is very excited to raise further awareness of the what he thinks is the most exciting film industry in the world.