Project Gutenberg is the latest film from Felix Chong, best known for his work with Alan Mak on the Infernal Affairs and Overheard series. Together with Mak, Chong has received multiple writing and directing nominations, and two wins for Best Screenplay, at the Hong Kong Film Awards. For Project Gutenberg, Chong is flying solo as a writer and director, but Mak is still collaborating as an art director. Their previous work, alas, creates expectations that this new film cannot meet.
Project Gutenberg stars Kwok Fu-shing, also known as Aaron Kwok, one of the “Four Heavenly Kings” of Hong Kong (Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai and Andy Lau are the other three). I must confess I am less familiar with Kwok’s work compared to the other three; I have not listened to any of his music and have only seen a small selection of his films. I need to rectify this; despite my reservations with this film, Kwok is a compelling force, a performer with strong screen presence and striking good looks. The best praise I can offer is that he holds his own against Chow Yun-fat in every scene.
The film is about Lee Man (Kwok), a painter who struggles with inadequacy. He’s good, but his girlfriend, Yuen Man (Zhang Jingchu, one of the best parts of the otherwise mediocre Protégé, and also terrific here in dual roles), eclipses him. Worried he will only hold her back, Lee withdraws from the spotlight and stumbles into the underworld of art forgery. While his paintings lack that mysterious and elusive “it,” his technical skill is extraordinary, and his forgeries soon attract the attention of a notorious crime lord, known only by the codename Painter (Chow), who offers Lee a job. Painter wants to forge money, specifically US $100 bills, and requires Lee’s talents.
While Chow is onscreen, the film is entertaining. He’s clearly having a good time, enjoying his turn as a charming villain, gleefully murdering fools and blowing things up and looking damn good the whole while. Project Gutenberg assumes the audience’s familiarity with Chow’s legacy and plays with his prior personas and film roles, slyly echoing films like God of Gamblers and every single collaboration with John Woo. Chong creates visual references to A Better Tomorrow, and at one point, Chow is running around with a shotgun and setting off explosives like he’s reliving the conclusion of A Better Tomorrow II.
Otherwise, the film can be a chore. The forgery plot is mildly compelling when it’s pouring over the fine details of the process, but the overall crime story is formulaic and underwritten, drowning in bad and repetitive dialogue, continually restating themes for the audience’s (assumed) benefit. Chong tries to punch up pedestrian plotting with stylish visual flourishes and slick editing, but it’s unfocused, and the result is merely garish. Worse, the entire narrative is built around a major plot twist that is shamelessly stolen from a popular 90’s Hollywood thriller (I won’t say which one, since that would constitute a spoiler, but you’ll recognize it immediately).
Project Gutenberg has compelling ideas hiding behind its big reveal, potentially making it more interesting than the Hollywood thriller it blatantly rips off. There is a scene early in the film, as Painter and Lee are flying on a plane, during which Painter claims that men are always motivated by love—or, on a more basic level, are always biologically motivated to impress and seek out mates. It seems like throwaway dialogue at the time, but the film will ultimately hinge on this scene, suggesting that Lee’s actions throughout were motivated by a deep self-loathing and loneliness. Project Gutenberg would have been better if it had more time to explore this, the final image serving as much as a conclusion as a jumping off point for a more compelling film.
I walked out of the theatre thinking about Tully, another film this year built around a big plot twist. My reaction to that film was similarly ambivalent. Films like Tully and Project Gutenberg spend too much time focused on plot machinations and not enough on actually exploring their themes. Tully at least has a compelling depiction of motherhood to carry the plot, but Project Gutenberg is unfortunately a largely mediocre and derivative affair, a pale echo of the Hong Kong films it references. Chong’s genre exercise plays entirely at the surface, never giving the film’s most interesting ideas the time they need or deserve. As such, there is little to recommend it beyond the central performances. Chow’s fans will certainly appreciate what Project Gutenberg is doing here; for a completionist, this is far from the worst film they will endure. But there’s a much better film hiding in here, if only Chong has trusted his audience instead of spending so much energy trying—and necessarily failing—to stay one step ahead of them.