Wong Kar-Wai's late 80's feature film debut "As Tears Go By" was a solid, gritty Chinese crime story that showed early signs of the famed director's visual flair. Running strong on two amazing and polar opposite performances from Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung, the film would prove to be a hit for all parties. Around 15 years later, Andy Lau would further his star in the critically acclaimed "Infernal Affairs" series. Ching-Po Wong's 2004 film "Triad Underworld" looked to take the talents of a reunited Cheung and Lau, as well as teaming them up with some of Lau's co-stars from the latter two "Infernal Affairs" films, Shawn Yue, Edison Chen and Eric Tsang. At a very lean 85 minutes though, "Triad Underworld" finds itself in rare company, serving up a meal of mediocrity that tastes worse than it actually is.
Telling the saga of two pairs of Triad brothers, the psychotic Lefty (Cheung obviously playing a watered down version of "As Tears Go By's" Fly) and the cool boss, Hung (Lay) as well as that of two upstarts Wing and Turbo, Yue and Chen respectively. Working from the director's original story, writer Chi-long To, struggles to craft anything but a checklist of genre conventions that are liable to wow those unfamiliar with Chinese gangster films, but bore aficionados silly. Director Wong's approach to filmmaking is sloppy and tacky, attempting to offer a shiny, visually intensive narrative, but only succeeding in rewarding viewers with second-rate production design and a product that looks more Western soap opera than Eastern thriller.
Compounding problems with the anemic script, are Lau and Cheung, who deliver two of the laziest performances I've seen from either men. Not having much to work off but contrived conversations of the old days and an impending assassination attempt, Cheung is comically unbelievable sporting a long braided hairdo and comic book attire. Lau has no energy at all, a shocking fact, given the film was made right in the middle of the "Infernal Affairs" saga, where Lau does some of the best work of his career. Younger actors Yue and Chen are given the meatiest plotline, albeit a generic tale of two up-and-comers whose rise is complicated by a woman, Yo-Yo (Yuan Li). With youth comes the film's only hint of enthusiasm, but the story's slavery to cliché, including shock value, ultimately derail any goodwill from the supporting players.
"Triad Underworld" isn't a great movie, nor a terrible one. Although it's brief runtime is the longest 85 minutes I've experienced in recent memory, I do credit the filmmakers with covering all the expected bases. Sadly, two key story elements combined with the talent involved, make it impossible to actually recommend anyone invest their time or money in the film. Late in the runtime, Wong injects a scene of implied bestiality for what I can only equate to be sheer shock value, making an already violent and nasty tale all the more repulsive. Finally, and to be honest, this might be the only reason to see "Triad Underworld," everything comes down to a twist ending. Wong almost succeeds in winning the viewer over, but any thought put into the final scenes of the film, make the journey all the more hollow.
If "Triad Underworld" didn't sport the co-headlining duo of Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung, I might be willing to give it a pass, but this is not a bright spot on either's filmography. Genre fanatics will only find frustration with only a weak twist to distinguish the paint-by-numbers story from other, middle-of-the-road tales. Newcomers are better left seeking out the upper echelon of the Chinese gangster canon, as "Triad Underworld" seeks to be nothing more than what was likely a cash-in on the wave ushered in by "Infernal Affairs."
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer captures the cheap, gaudy visual style of the film perfectly, although detail levels fluctuate from sharp to muddled, in a few instances from shot to shot. Whether this is a technical issue with the transfer or poor cinematography is unknown, but it is noticeable. Colors are balanced, with minimal bleeding during scenes with rich neon lighting, and contrast is a tad higher than expected.
The Cantonese DTS 5.1 audio track shows little improvement over the standard Dolby 5.1 track. The pulsing music has a decent kick, while dialogue is occasionally lifeless from scene to scene. The surrounds are used to moderate effect, mostly to give the increasingly annoying score more space, although a few chaotic action set pieces get you on your toes. English subtitles are included.
A short insubstantial "Making Of" featurette consists mostly of your standard promotional style cast and crew interviews. Aside from that a music video and the film's original trailer round out the bonus features.
Lousy lead performances and a cookie-cutter plot, combined with a second-rate visual style, cement "Triad Underworld's" status as marginal at best. Add to that, a less than stellar technical presentation and the catalog of superior films featuring the same cast available to viewers, and "Triad Underworld" offers no discernable reason to spend your money or time on it's poorly paced production. Skip It.