Saturday, April 2, 2016

Fire Lee's Robbery made me boiling mad (film review)

Robbery's cast and crew members meet the audience
before its first Hong Kong International Film Festival screening

The movie's stars include (from left to right in the above pic)
Philip Keung, Lam Suet, Eric Kwok, J. Arie and Derek Tsang

Robbery (Hong Kong, 2015)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Midnight Heat program
- Fire Lee, director and co-scriptwriter
- Starring: Derek Tsang, Lam Suet, J. Arie, Stanley Fung, Philip Keung

Before this crime film's screening, various members of its cast and crew turned up to greet the audience.  Amusingly, director-scriptwriter Fire Lee took this opportunity to not only thank his grandfather, who was among the viewers getting ready to check out the movie that evening, but also remind/warn the older man that Robbery is Category III-rated!  (Incidentally, it's one of just two offerings in the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Midnight Heat program this year to be given this ratings; with the other being a work from the infamous Gaspar Noe.)

Sadly, despite this movie being described in the HKIFF program folder as a "very funny genre concoction", I can't remember laughing as loudly while watching it as I did when hearing Fire Lee's message to his grandfather.  On the other hand, I definitely would agree with the same official film fest description of Robbery as "vulgar" and "violent" -- something that's well apparent from the opening few minutes of the work which introduces its protagonist, Lau Kin Ping (Derek Tsang), a 32-year-old under-achiever living in cramped conditions with his parents and elder brother in a public housing estate where people are given to commiting suicide by jumping to their deaths.

Without any cash to go and paint the town red (and without friends willing to treat him to a good time), Ping goes and gets work at a ridiculously spacious (for Hong Kong) convenience store called Exceed despite its manager (Lam Suet) being on the weird as well as insulting side.  Initially, things are quiet enough for Ping and his fellow store clerk, Mabel (J. Arie), to fool around at the store's expense.  Soon though, customers come calling -- and pretty much everyone of them brings with them major trouble.   

Individually, the angry homeless guy played by veteran actor Stanley Fung and confused undercover cop essayed by popular supporting actor Philip Keung are interesting characters.  Tonally, however, they seem to belong in different movies; with the former possessing large amounts of explosive righteous anger befitting a character in a didactic drama and the latter being so eye-bulgingly kooky that he'd fit better in a laugh-a-minute farce if he weren't so adept at handling a gun and prone to violence.     

Also joining the already crazy collection of characters for the better part of an ultra-eventful evening at the convenience store are a buxom female dressed in a cheerleader outfit that leaves little to the imagination (Anita Chui), an on the lam gang boss (Eric Kwok) and a suicidal bomber (Ken Lo). With their own stories to tell, they contribute to Robbery feeling way too overloaded, muddled and absurd to be genuinely compelling or even consistently entertaining.

As if this all wasn't already enough, Fire Lee and Co additionally throw in some socio-political commentary into the mix.  Call me cynical but my sense is that this was a calculated ploy to give emotional and intellectual depth to a blood-soaked work that threatened to be more style than substance.  In any case, their attempts at being politically conscious clearly didn't dispel any doubts they might have felt at their casual incorporation of misogyny and homophobia into their movie to get further cheap laughs.

Just as it's not usual for me to love a film so much that I'd rate it a perfect 10 (the way that I did for the HKIFF offering I had been treated to the previous day), it's really not common for me to come away from a screening in a cinema feeling that I hate a movie.  But I was boiling with rage by the end of the screening of Robbery -- and it's only after calming down somewhat over the past few days that I've been able to pinpoint why this was the case: that is, beyond my frustration at the movie's lack of logic and way beyond its "too cool for school" vibes getting at my nerves, I felt upset because the makers of this film had toyed with viewer emotions in a way that was disrespectful.  

The way I see it, Robbery had characters that viewers were supposed to care for.  Yet those characters suffer fates that often seemed to have been callously administered merely for shock value.  So either the makers of this movie think life is cheap (and its expiry consequently something that can be turned into a joke), or -- and how weird would this be for those who actually are film industry professionals? -- reckon arguments about a deadening cinematic work having been unnecessarily violent can be brushed aside by fluffily suggesting that "it's only a movie"!
My rating for this film: 3.0


Samson said...


Did you see the baseball drama "Weeds on Fire" at the HKIFF?

YTSL said...

Hi Samson --

I wanted to but "Weeds on Fire" was one of two films (along with Yoji Yamada's latest) whose tickets had sold out by the time I went to buy my HKIFF tickets -- just one hour after ticketing opened for the fest! Am hoping that it'll get a cinema release before too long...