A select few of likewise unhappy people can relate to being alone and drunk on their birthday like Po (Shawn Yue), the bodyguard for recently-shot and critically-injured crime boss, Jimmy (Yuen-Leung Poon). Jimmy is one of five bosses in a closely-knit district which has, up until his shooting, been functioning peacefully and successfully in the underground. Jimmy's lady, Wah (Ada Choi) is vacationing in Taiwan and as soon as she hears of the shooting, Wah makes plans to come home. Until her arrival, she appoints Po as temporary head of the crime family, much to the dismay of the family's second-in-command, Blackie (Chapman To). Blackie is more than happy to take over the operation: in fact, he's willing to go to war with the four other bosses, despite having no evidence linking any of them to Jimmy's hit. Poor Po has to sober up quickly, find Jimmy's shooters, and keep the status quo until Wah gets back into town. The last thing reluctant Po wants is to be a crime boss; and just about everybody in the district is going to take the opportunity this night to shake him down.
Written and directed by Herman Yau, Rebellion (2009) is another successful and exciting film delivered from him (from this year alone). Veteran Yau crafts a character-driven drama, brimming with local color, an attentive eye to detail, about a local and insular crime syndicate, which is really a big dysfunctional family about to have all its closet skeletons exposed (in one night, no less). Shawn Yue turns in one of his best performances of his young career as Po and contributes to nearly all of the excellent and tension-filled action sequences.
A short exposition begins Rebellion, letting the viewer know who's who in the syndicate and how the power dynamics work in their relationships. Beyond that, Yau lets his characters do all their own exposition through their actions. There is very little that one can say about one who chooses to be drunk and alone on his birthday: either that character really wants to be alone and drunk or either that character is unhappy. Yue's Po is in the latter camp. He doesn't have any ambition or desire to be the top man in his organization. His current job, as Jimmy's bodyguard, he stepped into reluctantly. Po's an orphan, and like many, he's been dependent solely upon himself for care. Pretty Ling (Elanne Kwong) works at a local restaurant, where over the years the bosses meet for Mah-jong and business, and has watched Po over those years. Ling was present at Jimmy's shooting but didn't see anything. When she sees Po struggling to stay focused and taking a turn or two to gag and vomit, as he tries to gather information and keep people in line until Wah arrives, Ling offers to help Po and accompany him. Of all the people that Po encounters that evening, Ling becomes the most important. Their relationship feels genuine, and while watching, it was Po and Ling on whom I wanted Yau to focus. Yau didn't disappoint me. The other characters, especially the other crime bosses, are also well-drawn. Each has his own quirk and habits, which makes each instantly identifiable, and how each interacts with Po over the evening, speaks about his inner character and his own personality. Choi's Wah is a standout character with a standout performance. Choi is such a fun and charismatic actress that she's easy to watch do anything (she's also a favorite of mine).
The characters of Rebellion speak loudly with their words and actions but visually, Yau puts such an attentive eye to detail, these characters speak with their image. Yue's Po literally looks defeated with tired eyes and his sloppily opened dress shirt and sneakers. His attire says a lot about his character. Mr. Tai (Austin Wai) is the syndicate's head and dresses the part as dapper as any fancy gangster. Blackie's attire is as wild as his character. The true hustlers of the street are dressed appropriately for hustling, and the world of the small district within Rebellion really comes to life.
Yau adopts a low-key, smoky visual style with little overt flare, save the fantastic action sequences. Yau owns and commands action cinema, and in an especially well-executed scene, Po fortuitously rescues Blackie from a group of armed thugs on the street. Po and Blackie flee on foot while the group gives chase, and they hide in a store behind the after-hours, steel shutter. Po and Blackie have enough time to smoke a cigarette and collect their thoughts, until with a nifty audio cue, tires are heard screeching. A split second before a car comes crashing through the store's shutters to dispatch a crew to kill Po and Blackie, Po pulls him away. Beyond the excellent, overt action sequences, Yau continues to show his command of creating a heavy atmosphere of tension. Any director can shoot explosions, but only a creative few, like Yau, can create the perfect set-up for them: when two characters confront each other in Rebellion, it's felt by the viewer.
Herman Yau, I will continue repeating this over and over, is making some of the most exciting cinema coming out of Hong Kong (or really anywhere). His cinema is always unexpected, irreverent, playful, creative, and rewarding. He does it so often, and again with Rebellion, that I'm at risk of being spoiled.