The much anticipated reunion of ‘Infernal Affairs’ alumni Andy Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and writer Felix Chong arrives with an enviable level of anticipation attached to it. Over two decades after the Hong Kong thriller achieved unprecedented success at home and abroad, all eyes were on the cast and crew could capture lightning in a bottle again, albeit without fellow ‘Infernal Affairs’ contributors, director Andrew Lau and Chong’s writing partner, Alan Mak.
George Tan (Leung) unceremoniously arrives in Hong Kong on a container ship, leaving his family behind to make money in the so-called Promised Land. Despite being a trained engineer, Tan finds every door of opportunity firmly shutting in his face as Hong Kong finds itself flooded with people eager to take advantage of the economic boom. By chance, however, Tan comes to the attention of a fellow Hokkien speaker who works for a major real estate company, and after helping out his new employer, the newcomer suddenly finds a newfound ability to charm. Soon Tan is closing multi-million dollar sales and absorbing rivals, all the while looking for the next milestone to reach. As he increases in wealth and influence, Tan comes to the attention of a dogged ICAC agent desperate to bring him down who is willing to risk his own life and that of his family to achieve it.
‘The Goldfinger’ is dusted with a wealth and confidence that some bigger budget Hong Kong films have recently enjoyed. There are copious expensive looking computer generated shots of Hong Kong in the 70s and 80s, a cast of major players and opulent set design that befits the story of unimaginable wealth. Yet, while it is slick, while it coasts along as confidently as the recent Western blockbusters we have grown accustomed to seeing Hong Kong stars in, it is a disappointing attempt to copy past glory without fully understanding what made it so good in the first place. Quite simply, those expecting ‘Infernal Affairs’ will need to massively adjust their expectations.
Any film that takes place in the financial world has to be able to make the drama and intrigue exciting and, importantly, understandable to a general audience. This is where ‘The Goldfinger’ makes its first and most worrying mistake. There’s plenty of bluster and incident, lots of scenes of the stock market and discussions about shares, but it’s never particularly involving. We didn’t need a long lesson on how financial markets work or how they can be manipulated, yet some brief illumination about it would have improved later scenes that rely on number crunching. Felix Chong is adept at showing the luxury and the trappings of wealth, but the nuts and bolts of the operation are left in the background. As is often the case, it is also strange to see cinema telling its viewers a story of woe and unbridled avarice while making sure all shots of excess are lovingly filmed.
The film also suffers from that modern trend of portraying a past era in a Pinterest kind of way – dapple lots of iconography on the screen, fill it with things you are fairly sure will shout out the year from the rooftops and hope for the best. It has probably always been thus, but seeing the 70s and 80s given this pantomimic treatment is something I grow ever more aware of. ‘The Goldfinger’ manages to avoid the trap of filling the soundtrack with songs of the era to really nail home the point, so in that way it is preferable to the Hollywood nostalgia bait. However, I require more to be immersed in a period piece than having every character chain smoke and wear platform shoes.
There is also something to be said about how flatly written the characters are. The viewer is never shown how George Tan was charming or how said charm could have inveigled so many of his contemporaries. We have vague knowledge of the family he left behind, but it’s mentioned at the beginning and end without impacting on much else. It’s then difficult to believe Tan as the intimidating Svengali later on as there has been no indication earlier that he has that in his arsenal. Andy Lau’s fearless investigator fares even worse as his admirable pursuit of Tan and willingness to put his life on the line for it seems to come from nowhere. There isn’t a nascent rivalry or early encounters, just the final investigations. To then throw the Lau family in as an emotional bargaining chip never rings true.
Despite its flaws, ‘The Goldfinger’ is an entertaining and well-acted piece of cinema with the highlights being the face-to-face meetings of Lau and Leung throughout the film. Yet there is so much incident that is brushed over that it feels like a truncated version of a much bigger story and while I have grown sick of the modern trend for bloated running times, ‘The Goldfinger’ desperately needs space to breathe.