With the release of Project Gutenberg, writer-director Felix Chong delivered an excellent commercial film boasting first-rate production values and terrific star performances, and the returns were not minor. While Hong Kong cinema remains mired in an extended slump, Chong’s crime action epic made a pronounced impact, earning substantial worldwide sales, doing terrific box office in Asia, and receiving award recognition, including 17 nominations from the Hong Kong Film Awards.
A big reason why the film earned favor is that it mines nostalgia to give fans of 1980s and 1990s Hong Kong cinema something they’ve longed for: Chow Yun-fat acting effortlessly cool in a crime action drama. The iconic international superstar has starred in some action or crime films since heading to Hollywood back in 1995, but few of Chow’s roles since – in Hollywood or Asia – have resembled the larger-than-life screen heroes he once was known for.
Chow’s part in Project Gutenberg isn’t exactly like his classic roles – because he plays a villain and not a hero – but it’s the closest we’ve seen in two decades and counting. Chow plays a legendary criminal called Painter, who recruits struggling artist Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) into his counterfeiting operation. Lee Man is talented at artistic mimicry but a failure at everything else, and his crumbling relationship with suddenly rising artist Yuen Man (Zhang Jingchu) pushes Lee Man further into Painter’s embrace.
Project Gutenberg is largely told in flashback from Lee Man’s perspective while he’s being interrogated by the police. His story explains who Painter is, and why he should be feared, while the cops start to worry that Painter will exercise his famously bad temper and come in guns blazing. This is the present tension – that Painter might show up and massacre everyone – while the past tension is in the slow revelation of Painter’s machinations. We also learn a whole lot about how to make and move counterfeit money.
The extensive counterfeiting detail should be an expository slog, but it’s a credit to Chong and his editors that it becomes so engaging. The ins and outs of Painter’s business are detailed with surprising energy, and serve to propel the narrative purposefully. It helps that actors like Aaron Kwok, Zhang Jingchu and Liu Kai-chi are typically excellent, and there are surprising performances too, especially from Catharine Chau, who plays a cop with a personal vendetta against Painter.
However, the centerpiece of the film is Chow Yun-fat. Given some key plot twists, Aaron Kwok is clearly the primary lead, but Chow overshadows him at every turn. Painter is charming and charismatic yet cunning and sinister, and Chow Yun-fat delivers a star turn for the ages. Felix Chong leans into his star even more by mounting an exhilarating action set piece midway through the film that hearkens back to the bullet ballet actioners that made Chow Yun-fat a household name.
Sadly, Project Gutenberg doesn’t include one shot from its trailer of Chow Yun-fat using a flaming counterfeit bill to light a cigarette – a direct lift from John Woo and Chow Yun-fat’s classic A Better Tomorrow (1986). That shot would have fit into one of the film’s montages, but perhaps Chong felt it was too over-the-top in its nostalgic celebration of classic Hong Kong cinema. It probably was, but since Project Gutenberg already features Chow brandishing two guns in classic slow motion John Woo style, Chong should have just gone full groupie and included his trailer money shot. Given that Chong has admitted in the press that he’s a Hong Kong cinema fanboy, then he may as well own it completely.