NYAFF 2015: ROBBERY: A Debut Hong Kong Black Comedy For The Sick At Heart

by Victor Pryor

The New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 26 to July 11. For more details, click here

Robbery, the debut feature from director Fire Lee, which had it’s world premiere last Sunday at the New York Asian Film Festival, has both the virtues and the flaws of a film by a first-time director.

It’s a completely go-for-broke comedy with a bitter edge and a pitch black heart. And in the end, it’s a bit of a mess. But as messes go, it’s a compulsively watchable, highly entertaining one.

Taking place over the course of a single night, Robbery details the plight of Lau Kin Ping, a 32 year old nobody who still lives at home with his parents because he’s too broke to do anything else. He thinks of himself as a nobody, a complete nothing of a person.

Ping wears his “nobody” status proudly, if not loudly; in a world as bleak as the Hong Kong the film portrays, getting yourself noticed is pretty much only going to get you killed.

Then again, in this version of Hong Kong, pretty much everything gets you killed. And to most, it’s probably a relief.

When his fat boss (listed in the credits as “Fat Boss”) angers a customer who just happens to be a homeless ex-con, he gets a pair of scissors in the neck for his troubles, and the employees get taken hostage.

Several more people get involved over the course of the evening, and proceed to play a game of one-upsmanship where everybody fights to see just who can be the most psychotic.

(SPOILER: They’re all winners!!!)

Any movie that begins with a Wolf Of Wall Street parody that segues into a twisted inversion of Bruce Lee’s guiding philosophy (be “nothing” instead of “water”) and THEN tops it all off with a newlywed double suicide can’t be accused of erring on the side of subtlety. And Robbery, with its gory slapstick violence and free-floating nihilism, rubs your face in the dirt and makes you laugh your ass off while doing it.

Which is why it’s a bit of a letdown when the thing goes off the rails at the finish line.

Up until the final fifteen or so minutes, the movie finds a stunning variety of ways to make its point about the current state of things, from our heroes’ T-Shirt that reads “THIS CITY IS FUCKING STUCK” to the climactic speech that remarkably, ties the enduring popularity of Jackie Chan to the impossibility of the lower class to ever truly succeed in life.

But once the natural conclusion of the story has come and the thesis has been confirmed, a further twist comes into play that doesn’t make any sense given what we saw just five minutes earlier.

And then, another, further twist. One that, however cleverly retrofitted, pushes far past the suspension of disbelief ratio and totally muddles the message of the film to the point where it’s impossible to even understand what it meant to say in the first place.

Again, this is to be expected of a first timer; a surfeit of ideas, jokes, cool shots, and kickass Blood Money shots, without much thought to how it should all fit together.

Still, the first 75 minutes of Robbery are so good and so alive with grim vitality that I have no problem recommending it on that basis alone. When it works, it really works, and when it doesn’t, it’s still a sight to behold.

Recommended for the sick at heart.

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