Yes, this movie is mostly told in flashbacks, just like last week’s movie. But this one is about copying, so it is fine.
Lee Man has been rotting in a Thai jail, passing the time by painting pictures with the help of peeled paint from the wall. Oh, wait, hold on. That is not a painting. He is forging a stamp, to put on a letter. A guard comes around, saying that he will take outgoing mail for $10. That seems like a lot, but I just sent out an application for a new passport and that was a lot more than $10. Anyways, the prisoner across from Lee Man puts on a show of acting out, and Lee Man slips his letter into the mailbag while the guard is distracted. I guess that it is difficult to earn $10 in a Thai jail…or an American jail for that matter.
Like maybe a minute later, another guard comes and tells Lee that the Hong Kong police have arrived to take him back. Huh…did Lee know about this beforehand? Would his letter be different had he not known? I don’t know; this movie just started.
And with that, Lee is back in Hong Kong. Some…cop, talks about some stuff that has happened. Two years earlier, seven guards of an armored truck for the Central Bank were killed on a highway in Canada. A few months after that, a guerilla group in the Golden Triangle was attacked, leaving eighty-two dead and nearly twice that number injured. Then the murder-arson case at a local printing mill and then a double murder at a hotel last year. The cop says that all of these cases are connected to an international counterfeiting syndicate. Huh…I would have figured that counterfeiters concentrated on counterfeiting and try to keep the killing to other people. Yet, all of its members are dead. All except for Lee Man and the leader…known only as Painter. He is off the grid and no one has any info on him other than some cruddy photo that shows barely anything.
Inspector Ho Wai-lam, who had brought Lee back from Thailand, asks him about Painter. Who is he? Why is he off the grid? She then says that if Painter knows that Lee is here, then he will kill him. Previously silent, Lee asks how she knows that Painter doesn’t know? And if he does know, then everyone in the room is dead. He imagines the whole place blowing up and starts crying, begging to go back to jail. So, he gets put in a cell…and punched in the face.
After…I guess slipping sleeping pills in his food and extracting as much physical evidence from him as they can, the cops take Lee out of the cell and bring him back into the office. They tell him that his DNA matches samples found at the hotel, so they are charging him with murder. Lee lashes out, screaming that evidence is fake; he has to be restrained. Inspector Ho threatens to publicize that Lee sold out Painter for a plea deal, and to tell Witness Protection to make it easy for Painter to find him. If he is already doomed to death, then he might as well be useful first.
The Deputy Commissioner calls Inspector Ho out and takes her to the meeting room. In any case. An artist named Yuen Man has arrived with a legal team, hoping to bail out Lee. Wait. His name is Lee Man and her name is Yuen Man? You know what? Nevermind. Of course, the Deputy Commissioner is reluctant to give up a witness/suspect in multiple murders, but the legal representative claims to have reviewed the evidence and calls its authenticity into question. He accuses Inspector Ho of setting up Lee and the Deputy Commissioner of covering for his daughter. Oh, so the Deputy Commissioner is the Inspector’s father? Okay. In any case, Inspector Ho reminds Yuen that she was the one who took her to the hospital after her fiancé was killed. Yuen ignores her, saying that either the police will free Lee now or she will come up with another way. DC Ho says that he will free Lee if Lee can tell them everything that he knows about Painter. It seems like Yuen agrees.
Lee gets sent to the…uh…interview room, where Inspector Ho and Yuen are waiting. Yuen tells him about the deal. Lee says that the two of them will be in danger if he tells, but she says that she won’t be if she just leaves. Lee asks why she is doing this. Yuen says that Painter killed the man that she loves, so she has the right to the truth. Lee agrees, so he sits down in the chair and Yuen sits behind him. The camera starts recording and he begins his story.
Lee met Yuen in Vancouver in 1985…WHAT? What years is it now? Okay, whatever. 1985. Vancouver. And not the fancy part of Vancouver. They had both been painting and…well, have not had success in a decade. So…this is 1995 now? In any case, they live together in an apartment, barely paying the bills and whatnot.
One day, Lee comes home to overhear Yuen arguing with an art agent named Lok Man…another Man? Lok tells Yuen that her paintings are fantastic and original, but Lee’s are just retreading old ground. The world needs only one Van Gogh (I should point out that barely a minute has passed since the movie showed a can of soup) and those who follow in his footsteps have no value. Yuen says that she can be represented only by someone who will also represent Lee. Lok insists that he can take her places, but he cannot take Lee with her. Lee has heard all of this, moping in silence outside.
Lee arrives later that night. He says that he worked things out with Lok and Yuen can take Lok’s offer without him. After all, a gallery just bought his work. Is that actually true or did he just secretly do some counterfeit work for an art dealer?
It’s the counterfeiting. And Yuen is not happy about this, but Lee says that this is what he was born to do. But can she accept him as that?
An impatient Inspector Ho stops Lee. She tells him that she is not interested in all of this. Yuen says that she is interested, but tells Lee to get to the Painter part of the story.
Okay, so Painter, apparently, approached the art seller who had been paying Lee to make forgeries. The seller had tried to pass off one of Lee’s fakes as a stolen painting that was made in 1513, but Painter saw through it, and asked to see the forger. The art seller denied it being a fake, but Painter insisted.
After not being home for Lee goes to see Yuen’s art exhibit on its last day. He notes that she had put up one of his paintings in the exhibit. She says that there have been a few interested buyers for that one, but Lee is skeptical, especially since he has heard that everything except that painting has already found buyers.
One of the guests approaches Lee’s painting and starts speaking very loudly. He calls it an encapsulation of four artists from the 1950s. An imitation better than a copier. Leftovers, rancid. Yuen splashes a glass of wine at his face and orders him to get out.
The man leaves and Lee runs after him. He catches the man in his car and tries to apologize on Yuen’s behalf. The man says that he did not come for Lee’s girlfriend, but to discuss a certain forged painting.
Over drinks, Lee Man and the man discuss his craft, which Lee acknowledges sounds more like chemistry than anything else. The man says that Lee underestimates himself, that the pursuit of perfection in any field is an art. And a counterfeit can be even better than the real thing. Is he also into counterfeits? Replicas. Replicas that are so real that they fool top experts. He then goes into some talk about leading men needing a stage to pursue their perfection before giving Lee his business card and walking off. And this is how Lee got introduced to The Painter.
I should probably point out that the movie had revealed that The Painter was portrayed by Chow Yun-fat about twenty minutes earlier, but it amused me to keep that hidden up until this point. Perhaps you recognized him from the poster, perhaps not.
Lee returns to the gallery to find his painting the only one left. Indeed, no one wanted it. To Yuen’s dismay and Lok’s indifference, Lee sets it on fire. I don’t suppose that fire alarms in buildings were standard in 1995 Vancouver.
Lee goes to see Painter, who takes him on a car ride to…somewhere. Lee asks which artist he is to copy and Painter pulls out an American $100 bill.
Lee is ticked off and gets out of the car. Painter gets out too, and says that he is an artist like Lee. His art just happens to be making fake money. He just wants Lee’s help with production; everything else will be handled by others. Lee says that he doesn’t trust Painter; he doesn’t even know Painter’s name. Painter says that his name is Ng Fuk Seng. He tells Lee that he comes from three generations of counterfeiters, and that no one in his family has ever gone to jail because they all played by the rules and their powerful buyer have protected them. He says that his replica dollar will be the world’s favorite painting. Lee still refuses to be a part of this.
Lee goes home to see Yuen leaving with Lok. It looks like she won’t be returning.
And with that, Lee is on a plane with…Ng. Ng says that he had thought that he had lost him. Lee says that Yuen was leaving for the US and he went to see her off. “See” being the key word here. Ng promises that he will help Lee get her back when this project is over. Lee says that he is here to work for Ng and that’s it; Ng does not need to worry about anything else. Ng claims that he worries because Lee works for him; most accomplished men do what they do for women. He says that his father once told him that men who can give up on love will fail at everything he does. However, Ng calls himself the rare exception who doesn’t need a woman to accomplish anything. Yeah okay. And he goes into his explanation about what they are going to do.
The US released the new design for the $100 bill in March. I don’t remember if it was actually released that early, since I gather that it was meant for 1996, but I am just going by what the movie says. Ng goes through the different security upgrades and I don’t know how accurate any of this is.
Then Ng introduces Lee to the rest of the counterfeiting crew, who were definitely not in those seats earlier: Uncle Yam the printing plate maker, Miss Wah the administrator, Brother Four in logistics, and Bobby in security.
The group arrives in Hong Kong and goes to their printing mill headquarters. There Ng tries to learn to draw a recreation of the bill. I am not sure how much time elapses during this sequence, but it seems like a lot.
The gang hang out in the office of an antiques shop, betting on whether a painting is real or fake. Lee is invited to join in and he suggests that it is real, talking about how Chinese ink wash paintings can be split up into three near-identical layers. That three-layer tidbit gives Ng the idea to…erm…something about pulp and printing that sandwiches the watermark between paper. I didn’t follow it, but the other characters seem to. Uncle Yam says that that would also take care of the security thread.
During a span of two months, Lee and Uncle Yam create seventeen prototypes of the printing plate. It is a very exacting job. Eventually they come up with one that seems good. At one point, Lee tries to delve into Uncle Yam’s life. He has found out that Yam has the same surname as Painter: Ng. Wait. They are both named Ng? What is with this movie and people sharing names? Well, then I am calling Painter Painter again. Lee asks if they are related. No, but Uncle Yam used to work with Painter’s father, and then did the same for Painter when his father died. That…wasn’t necessary to the explanation, but okay. He then asks about the family avoiding arrest. Uncle Yam says that that is true, due to their abiding by the rules, such as never spending the money that they print. So, their clients stay quiet about them. Has Uncle Yam’s family asked about his work? Uncle Yam says that they are not supposed to pry into each other’s family lives, but he does show him a picture of his wife and four daughters, saying that they live in Macau and think that he works in antiques.
Uncle Yam then says that following the rules do not guarantee a thing. For example, after a dispute with some Russians over prices, Painter’s father got beaten to death and his factory got torched. Well…at least he didn’t get arrested, right? Uncle Yam’s advice is to just stay cool and do good handiwork. Lee’s got great handiwork, so Painter will spoil him like crazy.
Apparently, the intaglio-style machine that they need for printing is one that only governments can get. So, the next day, the gang goes off to…Eastern Europe, to purchase an industrial paper printing machine from a state-owned firm that is being auctioned off as scrap metal. And they are purchasing a bunch of…phone books made out of starch-free paper that is 1/3 the thickness of the 1996 US dollar bill. I am not actually sure if this is in Eastern Europe or the US, but whatever. Painter puts on a disguise for some reason and has Lee do so as well. He tells the seller that he is in one of the biggest charity organizations in Hong Kong that prints educational comic books. The seller sells paper by the tons. How many comic books could this charity make that they could buy an amount that would make the sale worth it? Lee blurts out that they print the comic books for schoolkids in Africa. I am pretty sure that Mainland China has around the same number of children as the whole of Africa, but whatever. It works.
So, now the gang has a huge industrial printing machine and 500 tons of starch-free paper. Now, all they need is…to print all of that paper and get some color-shifting ink.
It is back to Lee’s old apartment in Vancouver. Has he still been paying for the place? He hasn’t been back for six months. Painter sifts through the mail by the door and finds a magazine with Yuen on the cover. Well, Lee just came back to drop off his keys. He had decided that he would never be seeing her again when he went to Hong Kong with Painter.
As Painter and Lee go driving through the Canadian country, Painter tells Lee that Yuen had named her exhibition after his painting that he had burned. He reminds Lee that he had promised to help him get her back, and he is upset that Lee is shutting her out for good. And Painter already has an alibi ready for his six months away. He says that he has done all this not simply to make Lee Man a leading man, but to make Lee Man Yuen Man’s leading man. And if Lee gives up on her, then he is giving up on himself, and Painter refuses to let that happen.
Painter then tosses something onto Lee’s lap and gets out of the car. Is…that…a bulletproof vest? And what is Painter…oh shit.
Jesus, man. This must be the armored truck attack that was mentioned at the start. Uh…couldn’t the COUNTERFEITING gang have outsourced this job to professional robbers? I guess that they all seem to be up to the task, but the surprised and terrified Lee is more of a liability. At least they haven’t killed any of the guards.
That is until the gang is unloading the ink buckets from the truck and a guard inside points his gun at Lee. Painter shoves Lee out of the way and shoots to wound, but the guard shoots back. And Painter unloads into him in anger.
Thanks to that, they only got two buckets worth; the rest got shot along with the guard. Then Painter plants a bomb under the truck and blows it up, presumably with the guards inside.
So, he is an explosives expert too? Jesus.
There is an odd sort of philosophical debate going on in the movie about whether originality is really all that great. While Lee makes counterfeits in shame, Painter asserts that making replicas is an art in itself. Most of the “original” artists mentioned in the movie are Western…White artists, treated as singular individuals whose work can never be imitated. Yet, Lee notes that unnamed Chinese artists traditionally made paintings that could be turned into three paintings that, while not necessarily identical, were still the same. Based in Canada and the United States, Lok Man can promote Yuen Man’s art due to her originality, but Lok’s seeming genericness is dismissed as bad. I know nothing about art, so I cannot comment on the actual paintings. I do feel like the movie allows for some ambiguity when it comes to that argument. Heck, even the English title is a reference to copying stuff. It is interesting that Lok Man says that there is only one Van Gogh when there are numerous Van Goghs, just not necessarily artists with that name. Meanwhile, the movie has multiple people named Man and Ng, and even acknowledges that there are multiple people named Ng Fuk Seng.
That ambiguity gets thrown out when it comes to counterfeiting. And, yet, that was the initial draw of the movie for me. The counterfeiting stuff is fun. They treat it like a heist. I don’t know how realistic it is, but it comes across as quite technical. It at least has the sheen of believability. And it is not like in Fight Club where there is worry that people would be able to replicate the process if it is explained too well; not everyone can purchase an intaglio machine or tons of starch-free paper. Also, the $100 bill was modified in 2013, so any viewers in 2018 or later who had the means to do everything showed in the movie would have to do extra research and take extra actions anyways. And just try to replicate all of the things shown in the numerous montages. That all looked like hard work. Fun, but hard work. There is some (perhaps inadvertent) acknowledgement of the reputation of Chinese manufacturing and Chinatowns being sources of counterfeit goods. I guess that if there does remain some ambiguity, it is whether the owners of said counterfeit goods have made peace with them being copies and are not fooled or fooling themselves into thinking that they are real.
It is when the counterfeiters actually take part in a heist that the movie takes a turn. Of course, we had already known that things would take a turn. There would be at least four violent events involving the gang; one extremely so. Almost all of the gang is dead by the time that Lee Man is brought to Hong Kong. And there is that (imagined) sequence of Painter blowing up the police station towards the start. So, that brings up the second aspect of the movie and the meta stuff.
I knew that Chow Yun-fat would be in this movie and play a prominent role. I was not expecting it to be like this, though. Now, Chow had played villains before, like the ruthlessly cruel king in Curse of the Golden Flower and a goofy small-time gangboss in Let the Bullets Fly. But this role has direct references from his time as an action star from the mid-80s to the early 90s. The movie that started it all, A Better Tomorrow, had Chow Yun-fat involved in counterfeiting. One scene in particular is a hat-tip to the “heroic bloodshed” movies that Chow had starred in at that time. Except for one major difference. There is nothing heroic at all here. Well, there may have been some CGI…so, two differences. I would rather focus on the first one, though.
Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s were wild. By 2018, not so much. It was under the thumb of not just the PRC, but Xi Jinping’s CCP. So, it was probably inevitable that the only way to have a character do the stuff that Chow’s characters did way back then would be to portray him as a complete scumbag. But then…maybe all of those “heroes” back then were scumbags who should not have been glorified and romanticized in the first place. Something to think about, yeah? The bromance? Painter may try to force it, but Lee rejects it over and over. The rules of honor and loyalty in organized crime? Uncle Yam calls it a sham. This is not so much a deconstruction of the “heroic bloodshed” genre, but an uneasy tribute that quietly acknowledges that such movies could not easily be made in the contemporary atmosphere. Even if Hong Kong moviemakers had wanted to outright copy those movies, they would probably not be able to. This was perhaps the only way to have one’s cake and eat it too. After all, there cannot be an alternate set of rules for the underground, only the rule of the people’s government under Xi Jinping. I will not spoil how the movie ends, but it did kind of throw me. Like, oh, they really went to THAT well, huh. I am not sure exactly how I feel about it, but perhaps it is necessary, another bittersweet acknowledgement that the age of “heroic bloodshed” is long gone. There were probably other things going on in the subtext, but I don’t know.
There is also another piece of weird meta-commentary that may or may not have been deliberate. Chow Yun-fat was the unexpected breakout star of A Better Tomorrow as the supporting character. Here, Chow may be the supporting character once again, but he shines the brightest. Aaron Kwok is a well-known actor who has had done more work during the 2010s than Chow did. And Kwok does a good job here as Lee Man. However, even the movie acknowledges that Chow is the star. This is a showcase for him. It is probably because he looks like he is having such a fun time being big and charismatic, while Lee is almost always hunched over and miserable. Painter keeps trying to draw him into the spotlight, to make him the lead character, to win and get the girl. But Lee is almost always trying to hide in the corner. The movie does so as well, until…Lee finally emerges from that corner to become his own person.
Aside from my ambiguous thoughts about the ending, there are other issues that I have with the movie. Of course, I understand that counterfeiting crew might need to be prepared for violence, which is why Bobby was there as security. I believe, however, that we at The Avocado have established that counterfeiting is a non-violent crime in-and-of itself. Perhaps it would be better to keep people with such highly specialized skills away from potentially violent situations as much as possible as opposed to seeking it out. Have perhaps a middleman with guards do all of the wheeling and dealing. The female characters could have had more characterization beyond their love lives. While most of the English dialog ranges from okay to good, there is one sequence where a “Canadian” gives the worst English line-reading that I have heard in a while. And while I was not particularly fond of that character, that one scene of him speaking English could have been outright deleted and no one would have noticed. Anyways, Justice for Miss Wah!
Like with last week, I still feel like I have only scratched the surface regarding the themes of this movie. Honestly, I thought that I had more to say before I started typing this out. At the same time, I may have put in more thought into it than it intended. It is nothing new, but it does not need to be. It is a silly, fun movie. And I like it.
WTF ASIA 238: 1987 – When the Day Comes (South Korea: 2017, approx. 129 minutes)
WTF ASIA 239: Junoon (India: 1979, approx. 131 minutes)
Available on Einthusan.