“Triad Underworld” (2004)

by A.J. Hakari

"Triad Underworld" poster

The best crime movies tend to deflect as much attention away from the misdeeds of their characters as possible. Rather than revel in someone’s abhorrent behavior and expect us to root for them because they’re on the poster, films of greater foresight focus on more psychological implications. What drives one to lead a larcenous life? Did all their morals vanish with their first pull of the trigger? Hong Kong has long been a mother lode for stories like these, from A Better Tomorrow to Infernal Affairs, and then some. Upon first glance, Triad Underworld seems like a hastily-assembled jab at hitching a ride on the coattails of such titles, with its cheap look and a plot that has some difficulty getting its shit together. But all the initial confusion pays off in unexpected ways, the end result defying its crude presentation to deliver an effectively somber example of its chosen genre.

Mr. Hung (Andy Lau) is a man of many enemies. Being a high-ranking mob boss, threats on his life are par for the course, but things have changed now. Hung has just become a first-time father, and with both his reputation and family to protect, he’s urged to flee the country by his right-hand man, Lefty (Jacky Cheung). The rumors of a new hired gun en route to do him in are even more of an incentive to take off, but Hung isn’t about to surrender his power just yet, especially to a hothead like Lefty. Meanwhile, Yik (Shawn Yue) is shown to be rising through the underworld’s ranks himself, having been picked by his superiors to carry out a particular assassination. Hung may be on his way out, but Yik is all in, diving headfirst into a night that will shape his destiny forever.

Often bundled together with Johnnie To’s unrelated Election movies here in the States, Triad Underworld is a fine enough film to deserve being counted in their company. Saying precisely why requires nimbly navigating a field of eggshells, as a single revelation in the final scenes is what makes so much of the flick click. Some might call it unfair to enjoy so much of a picture almost solely due to a last-act twist (considering how overall messy the narrative leading up to it is), but it makes you take a second look and fills in enough holes to not be worth discarding. Without divulging anything vital, it comes to a poignant conclusion about the irony of a life of crime, of how lonely one becomes when they’ve an army of thugs at their beck and call. Though there is blood shed here, it’s not what interests director Wong Ching-Po, who provides the meat of the film in conversations about power struggles and why some covet being the big boss when death will be forever peering over your shoulder.

Though its photography may strike you as low-rent at first, it actually does a service to Triad Underworld in the long run. It hits home the unglamorous tone the filmmakers are shooting for, allowing not a hint of romance to seep into the production. Being frugal doesn’t always work out to its benefit (just check out those horrible, digitally-inserted head wounds), but the movie’s introspective nature shines through and makes you forget about the requisite action being kept to a minimum. Why these characters do what they do is almost all the suspense one requires, and with an exception or two, Triad Underworld‘s cast holds your attention admirably. Somebody definitely favored Lau, who gets the bulk of the screen time and best dialogue to work with. But his performance here really is great stuff, perfectly playing a consummate cool customer who commands a room even at his most unassuming. Yue is a bit less fortunate as Yik, whose purpose eventually becomes clear but only after experiencing an insubstantial arc and substituting an awful lot of glowering for expressing his embittered psyche.

While falling short of a John Woo joint’s action and the breathless suspense Johnnie To is a master at conjuring, Triad Underworld is a crime saga that sits upon a pretty sturdy foundation. It needs little to get its point across, packing just enough monologues, double-crosses, and spilled blood to make a good impression. Triad Underworld won’t change how you see the genre, but it will settle you down for a sound story with plenty of dramatic punch.