In the leadup to The Goldfinger’s release, lead stars Tony Leung and Andy Lau have been giving interviews where the ultimate message can be summed up as, “We’re bringing back Hong Kong cinema.” Thing is, Hong Kong cinema never left. While even I fell under the spell of Western media’s perception that the good old days died with the 90s, HK films have never stopped being made.
Now, you can make the claim that the no-holds-barred, let’s make 200 films a year style is gone. HK certainly doesn’t have the old studio system anymore, but that doesn’t equate to there not being a HK film industry. Even just this year I reviewed two brand-new HK films for the site.
Why bring this up in the introduction? Well, it’s because a film such as The Goldfinger is hardly new, unique, or even a rebirth for the Hong Kong film industry. It’s just kind of business as usual with incredibly stylish production.
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Director: Felix Chong
Release Date: December 30, 2023 (Worldwide)
The greater depth of The Goldfinger’s plot will be lost on anyone not familiar with Hong Kong’s history. In essence, this is a highly fictionalized take on the story of George Tan, a former businessman who was the head of the infamous Carrian Group. The man exploded into wealth in the mid-70s and started snatching up a bunch of real estate and businesses. People were stunned that this guy came out of nowhere and was suddenly the richest man in Hong Kong. Turns out, most of his dealings were based on deception, fraud, and bribery.
Beginning sometime in the 70s, The Goldfinger shows us the slow rise of Henry Ching (Tony Leung), a down-on-his-luck man who happens to be very charming. An immigrant from the mainland, Henry gets involved with some market manipulation on behalf of his friend KK Tsang (Simon Yam), and the two start to hatch an idea. Why not take this scheme of theirs to the top? Why stop at simply making HK$1 million when they can claim the illustrious Golden Hill House?
That’s getting ahead of things. After a brief flashback, we cut to the present (which happens to be in the 80s) and meet Lau Kai-Yuen (Andy Lau), an investigator with the ICAC who has been following Henry’s case for years. Attempting to nail the man on some kind of criminal charge, he questions Henry’s associates and we are given different perspectives and information about certain incidents that flesh out Henry’s character and story.
In some way, The Goldfinger reminded me of The Wolf of Wall Street. While there isn’t nearly any of the same kind of debauchery present, the figure of Henry Ching is very similar to Jordan Belfort. I suppose any kind of money-hungry mogul eventually loses their morals and seeks the almighty dollar above human life, so that makes sense. That observation is less about their respective lives and more about how the movie is paced and presented.
The Goldfinger goes out of its way to present Henry to the audience as if he’s a misunderstood figure during the first act. When Lau is initially questioning him, there’s a sense that we’re supposed to be immediately against him as he’s working with the police and is somehow corrupt. There’s a segment early on where a bunch of Hong Kongers are protesting against the ICAC and that hostility isn’t lost on me. Where things start to change is when Lau goes deeper into the story and starts to uncover truths Henry had buried long ago.
It’s no coincidence that director Felix Chong was a writer for Infernal Affairs more than 20 years ago. That film famously paired Tony Leung and Andy Lau together as adversaries and it created one of the most sensational cat-and-mouse chases the world had ever seen up to that point. In The Goldfinger, the roles are reversed and Leung is playing the villain while Lau plays the straight-man.
That’s maybe the most impressive thing about The Goldfinger. Before Lust, Caution, Tony Leung had never played a villainous role. Heck, it was roughly 15 years before he played a second one in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Seeing him cut loose and encapsulate all of the attributes that make villains so engaging is a delight. He really shines in his role, which I wish I could say for everyone else.
In what is apparently a typical stylistic choice for Felix Chong, The Goldfinger jumps back and forth between different periods and settings to convey its narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad approach to crafting a story, but it does create some confusion when it comes to what happened and when. I can dig a non-linear story and I was immediately thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s earlier days, but at some point, you really just want to see events unfold in chronological order. The plot here seems to do all of its time hopping as a way to paint over deficiencies.
The main deficiency? Andy Lau’s ICAC investigator is hardly developed. He has a family and newborn child that are put in direct danger thanks to Henry Ching, but we only know him as a job-first kind of guy. He consistently puts his family to the side in an attempt to nail Henry and the one time he doesn’t, his family nearly winds up dead and he goes back to sidelining them. It feels weirdly inept, especially since Lau is such a dynamic actor who can carry even the most basic of material.
But even more than that, there’s just so much in this film that goes by without a second thought. There’s this whole beginning scene with Henry meeting Mr. Wu (Tai Bo) that acts as the catalyst for his rise to prominence, but then kind of resolves itself by the end. Some mildly offensive caricatures of black and Middle Eastern people act as MacGuffins and nothing more. A big plot point in the third act focuses on one vaguely Middle Eastern man who comes out of nowhere, sets up an interesting angle of Henry possibly not being in control, and then completely fizzles out.
Still, a lot of this will probably fly over your head as you’re watching The Goldfinger as the film is very nice to look at. From its gaudy color grading to some elaborate sets and creative editing, the movie is an engaging watch from an audio/visual standpoint. There’s one sequence in this golden hall of mirrors that I genuinely have no idea how it was filmed. There isn’t a single instance of catching the camera crew or a tell of stitch cutting that I could spot.
The Goldfinger even has some action sequences that were directed by Chin Ka-Lok, an old HK stuntman and performer who has appeared in many golden era classics. You can tell that Felix Chong, Tony Leung, and Andy Lau have their hearts in the right place, but the result is a fairly standard historical fiction/drama/biopic thing. Even the ending turn where Leung finally gets to act mostly evil isn’t shocking.
There is absolutely a charm to seeing a movie in 2023 written and performed in the Cantonese dialect, but there is an element of the story missing here. Most of these big-budget films are co-productions between China and Hong Kong. Even if I was in love with The Goldfinger, this is hardly a resurgence of the Hong Kong film industry due to its mainland ties. To the credit of Chong, nothing seems to be censored or pulling its punches concerning accuracy, but the point stands. It needs to also be said that these types of films have never died off. They are mostly relegated to Chinese streaming platforms.
So where does that leave me with The Goldfinger? I don’t quite know. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the ride, but I also wasn’t blown away by anything happening. The politicking in the film’s marketing is a little off-putting, but this all culminates in a pretty average HK thriller that occasionally recaptures the style and pizzazz of the past. It certainly looks expensive and has some solid tunes, but that can only carry a movie so far.
The Goldfinger won’t be winning any awards for originality, but I suppose if a film like this can reintroduce Hong Kong cinema to people outside of Hong Kong, then maybe that isn’t the worst outcome. Just make sure to temper your expectations if you decide to watch this.