Making it's intentions clear from the opening scene of Francis Ng tearing a page from a triad comic to wipe his backside, Cha Chuen Yee's Once Upon a Time In Triad Society takes it's inspiration from the wildly popular Young and Dangerous movies, themselves based on the triad comic Teddy Boy. Using some of the same actors from Young and Dangerous, playing almost the same characters including Ng's scene stealing bad guy Ugly Kwan from that film, Cha creates an hilarious black comedy that mercilessly tears apart the Triadboyz genre.
Essentially two stories bookended with a quick introduction and an amusing wrap up, we are introduced to Kwan's (Francis Ng) thoroughly despicable character, as in a whirlwind of incident, he's shot and left seemingly to die in hospital as no one will tend to his wounds. A narration begins as Kwan tells us the first story of how the righteous Kwan, turned bad through being betrayed at every turn by everyone who ever meant anything to him. The second story has Kwan telling us he was lying and what we just sat through was a waste of time, and that he was always exactly as introduced, before coming back to the present for the wrap up.
While Once Upon a Time In Triad Society is obviously a low budget film, it's ambition, verve and the level of skill in it's execution more than make up for any budgetary limitations. Played for pitch black laughs, the movie lives or dies based on it's lead performance. Luckily Francis Ng, one of the most reliable actors in Hong Kong, delivers in spades with a multifaceted performance that carries the film from start to finish. As terrible a character as Kwan is, Ng still manages to create genuine sympathy for him in the first half of the film. One of the greatest villain roles in Triad cinema, it's hard to imagine many lead actors being brave enough to play such a bastard, and with such nuance. It's almost a one man show but Ng recieves excellent support from the lovely Loletta Lee and the ever dependable Chan Wai Man in particular.
It's hard to imagine this film wasn't an influence on Wai Ka Fai's Too Many Ways to be No.1, as the two films share a similar structure, but where Wai's film depends on fate and choices, this film is divided by truth and lie. The other similar element the films share is the riotous absurdity, although Too Many Ways takes that to a whole different level.
Unfortunately Once Upon a Time In Triad Society seems to be another HK film trapped in rights hell, the movie stays unreleased in Hong Kong on dvd, a crying shame. The VCD is reasonable for the format and the movie was released on laserdisc, but it would no doubt benefit greatly from the higher quality format of dvd, if only for it's excellent use of Hong Kong street locations.
A witty and insightful take on the triad movie that deserves not only a better release but the larger audience that release would bring to it. At the time of it's original release perhaps HK audiences were still far too enthralled with Ekin Cheng's hair and the Young and Dangerous films to see such a thorough deconstruction of those movies so early in the their cycle.