I Did It My Way (Jason Kwan, 2023)

I Did It My Way (Jason Kwan, 2023)

I didn’t see the Andy Lau crime movie with a title borrowed from a hit 1960s American pop song that came out a couple of weeks ago, but I did see the one that comes out this week. I skipped The Goldfinger, despite the promise of an Andy Lau-Tony Leung Infernal Affairs reunion that seemed to so excite a sizable portion of film twitter, partially because I see Andy Lau and Tony Leung in movies all the time (notable that those excitable folks appear to have made no effort to check out Tony in Hidden Blade, one of 2023’s finest films, or Andy in Moscow Mission, one of the year’s funnest), and partially because it was directed by Felix Chong. Chong co-wrote the Infernal Affairs films, of course, along with Alan Mak, and that is undoubtedly an accomplishment. But everything else he’s done is, at best, a disappointment (with the possible exception of Gen-Y Cops). Chong and Mak followed up that series, which had been directed by Andrew Lau, with a trio of Overheard movies, which they also directed, each one more overblown and absurd than the one before it. They’re slick, fast moving, ostensibly serious entertainments wholly lacking in personal style or depth, beyond further facilitating Lous Koo’s quest to dismember his body on film. Chong’s last effort was Project Gutenberg, a film which, like the Overheard movies, saw great acclaim and success in Hong Kong, but felt to me like an empty exercise in nostalgia that served only to remind me of other, much more soulful films.

I made time for I Did It My Way however, because it was directed by Jason Kwan, who, unlike Felix Chong, has the virtue of being utterly lacking in good taste. Maybe it’s the influence of Wong Jing, with whom Kwan co-directed the two Chasing the Dragon movies. The first of those was a wig-heavy biopic with Donnie Yen and Andy Lau retelling the oft-filmed story of Crippled Ho and Lee Rock (seen again this past year in Where the Wind Blows, another fine Tony Leung movie (American) film twitter didn’t bother with). The second was entirely unrelated, a crime epic set around the time of the Handover with Louis Koo and The Other Tony Leung. Neither of those movies are particularly good, but they have, like a lot of Wong Jing joints, a garishly infectious energy, facilitated by Kwan’s crisp digital images. 

Kwan began his career as a cinematographer, shooting, among other things, Pang Ho-cheung’s Love in a Puff, Vulgaria, and Aberdeen, the two Cold War movies (which are kind of the best possible version of the too-slick, self-serious post-Infernal Affairs genre film), Project Gutenberg, and Ann Hui’s 2012 short My Way. That My Way, a tasteful portrait of Francis Ng as a trans woman awaiting surgery, has nothing at all in common with this I Did It My Way. Instead, this is yet another film chasing that 21st century Heroic Bloodshed magic. Andy Lau plays a mob lawyer deeply involved in drug trafficking in Hong Kong. Eddie Peng plays the cybercrime cop on his trail. Caught in the middle is Gordon Lam Ka-tung, mob enforcer and (spoiler but not really because we all know this movie) undercover cop who’s been under so long he doesn’t know whether he’s a cop or a crook anymore. Filling out the cast are a bevy of familiar faces: Simon Yam as the head cop in charge; Lam Suet as the old school detective who doesn’t understand the internet; Philip Keung as Lau’s flashy front man; there’s even a little cameo for Kent Cheng as the owner of a local restaurant. As is usually the case here, the old men are joined by much younger women: Limbo’s Cya Liu (who in 2012 appeared in a Mainland film called On My Way) and Hedwig Tam (from Weeds on Fire).

As comfortably familiar as the stars are, so too are the plot mechanics. After a big opening shootout, Kwan settles into a comfortable rhythm: action scene, montage, tense dialogue showdown, montage, and so on for the rest of the film. The action, choreographed by Chin Ka-lok, is solid, with lots of gun fights and explosions that Kwan mostly hides in darkness, quick cuts, and whip pans and one nifty hand-to-hand fight for Peng. The action never reaches the delirious heights of Herman Yau’s recent forays into the Ancient Hong Kong Stars Play Undercover Cops Fighting Drug Crime genre: the lunatic car chase in The White Storm 2 or the explosion overkill in White Storm 3, but it moves well and mostly makes sense. The talky parts are solid too, with every veteran actor getting a chance to show how serious and determined and sad he can be, often all at the same time. The only truly tasteless bit comes when Andy interacts with his prematurely-born daughter, which looks totally fake, but you know, in a fun way. Well, that and the film’s final moments, when Andy is reunited with his wife, the one sequence in the film that almost reaches the heights of classic Hong Kong male melodrama. Oh and everything having to do with Lam Suet's character's fate. And ubiquitous audio commentator Mike Leeder's performance as a "Columbian" drug lord with a suspiciously British accent. The rest of the time we rush from one standoff to another, ripping scenes and situations and images from the past 40 years of crime films: City on Fire to Blackhat, Queen’s High to, well, Infernal Affairs

And it’s great to see these guys: I love old Milkyway Image movies as much as anyone, of course. But this obsession with the stars of the past, with old men way past the age when they could plausibly be working undercover in drug gangs, is doing nothing for Hong Kong cinema. Eddie Peng is the youngest star in this cast, and he’s in his 40s. It’s not as big a problem as the pressures asserted by the Mainland market and censorship apparatus, of course, both of which I Did It My Way deftly accommodates by leaning hard into the “drugs are the worst evil in history” party line with a brief Reefer Madness-type montage. But Kwan simply doesn’t have the nerve to push this logic to its unsettling conclusions, as Yau does in the White Storm movies or Johnnie To did in Drug War, without running afoul of the authorities. But the failure of the local industry to develop new stars has made for a tired, bloated cinema, one seemingly content to rest on the accomplishments of its past. A few filmmakers have broken through, making interesting films while staying within the bounds of the traditional Hong Kong crime picture, and recently those films have tended to star Gordon Lam: Soi Cheang’s Limbo and Mad Fate, Wilson Yip’s SPL: Paradox, Kelvin Chan’s Hand-Rolled Cigarette. As good as Lam is in I Did It My Way, and honestly he seems like the only one of the major stars to be really trying here, Jason Kwan hasn’t made a film that good yet. But I’m holding out hope that he might someday.