The Goldfinger

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The highly anticipated film “The Goldfinger,” a recent Hong Kong import helmed by Felix Chong, who also co-wrote the previous film, features Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Andy Lau, the captivating co-stars of the 2002 thriller “Infernal Affairs,” which inspired two sequels and served as the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning 2006 remake “The Departed.” The fact that it offers a tale reminiscent of two other Scorsese masterpieces, “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” while being based on a true financial scandal that dominated Hong Kong headlines in the 1980s, only serves to heighten viewers’ intrigue.

Henry Ching (Leung Chiu-wai), a bankrupt Singaporean, travels to Hong Kong in the early 1970s with the intention of pursuing a career as an engineer. That dream doesn’t come true, but soon after, he manages—more or less by accident—to get into a real estate deal where he makes a quick million by working with a developer who mistakenly thinks he is much wealthy and stronger than he actually is. He builds on that early success over the ensuing years with a string of incredible transactions, and by the 1980s, he is in charge of a billion-dollar commercial empire.

Not surprisingly, this empire turns out to be less solid than it seems and ends up drawing the notice of Lau Kai-yuen, an investigator for the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Lau tenaciously connects the dots to build a case against his target, even to the point of upsetting his own wife and family by his frequent absences, while Ching makes elaborate efforts to keep things going—using everything from bribes and women to outright intimidation in order to attract new partners and ever-increasing bank loans. Lau proves to be frustratingly unreachable because of his riches, contacts, and willingness to go to any lengths, even when it appears that he has all he needs to permanently put Ching away.

As I mentioned before, theoretically, this all sounds intriguing, but occasionally, Chong seems to be going over and above to diffuse any possible tension or excitement. Rather than using a more plain chronology, one major issue with the decision to impose a flashback framework is that it finds many of the episodes related by Ching’s associates during police questioning. The investigator character was probably given more screen time by doing this, but it simply ends up confusing things excessively and making it seem more like we are seeing a series of incidents rather than a completely compelling and gratifying plot.

Another problem is that, aside from the most fundamental ideas about Ching’s all-consuming greed and Lau’s sincere desire to find justice, we never really understand what motivates and drives the two main characters. These ideas aren’t all that dissimilar from what one might have read in an outdated Monogram Pictures program from the 1940s about how Crime Doesn’t Pay. (Possibly the most annoying thing about a movie full of these kinds of things is that there is a hint at one point that Ching might just be the public face of even more sinister and powerful forces, but as soon as it raises that potentially exciting prospect, it seems to forget about it entirely.)

If “Infernal Affairs” viewers had at least seen the kind of sparks between the two co-stars that they are obviously anticipating to see, the movie might have gotten away with its superficial narrative treatment, but even this is a little disappointing. They share the screen in very few scenes together, and the effects are insignificant. As Ching, Leung Chiu-wai has the much more glamorous part, and although he enjoys it, he is unable to offer the character any depth. In the meantime, Lau plays largely a supporting role, moving through the standard motions of his character without ever fully revealing the motivation behind his desire.

Given its subject matter, “The Goldfinger” is undoubtedly one of the most expensive Hong Kong productions ever made. Its slick and stylish production values may also be justified by the possibility that viewers who are more familiar with the true story that served as inspiration for the film will find greater resonance with the story’s narrative. It feels, for the most part, like a movie that has already undergone a remake, stripping away everything that first made it compelling and leaving only shiny surfaces.

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