REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


PROJECT GUTENBERG. Hong Kong/China. 2018. Originally released as Mo Seung [“unique”]; in Chinese: 無雙. Chow Yun-Fat, Aaron Kwok, Zhang Jingchu, Catherine Chow, Wenjuan Feng. Written and directed by Felix Chong.

   Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) is an artist suspected of being involved with the legendary counterfeiter The Painter (Chow Yun-Fat) in jail in Thailand. Transferred to Hong Kong to help in the investigation of Inspector Ho (Catherine Chow) into the Painter, the nervous and timid artist recalls his tumultuous history with the master counterfeiter.

   Told in a non-linear style, the film jumps back and forth showing how Lee failed in his career as an artist after going straight having started out as a counterfeiter, how he was estranged from his artist wife Yuen (Zhang Jingchu), and met the charismatic and brilliant Painter.

   Playing brilliantly on audience expectations of Chow Yun-Fat’s past films, the Painter is handsome, brilliant, a one-man army, and as Lee soon discovers to his distress, a ruthless, violent, and volatile criminal with international ties and a plan to counterfeit American dollars that is unprecedented in its ambition.

   Stylish set pieces, like a holdup of a special armored car carrying the inks used in printing dollars, shootouts in the style of John Woo, and an explosive gun battle with a greedy military leader wanting to buy the counterfeiting process Painter and Lee have created, punctuate the film, while the complex mix of characters and Chow Yun-Fat’s increasingly violent and inhuman behavior keep the viewer watching.

   And if all was going on was a story about the young artist being seduced by and eventually turning against the older smoother criminal who turns out to hide a monster beneath the cool exterior and about the cops closing in on them, this would be a well done action crime drama.

   But something more is going on with Project Gutenberg, and it becomes clear toward the end when almost everything you have seen before, an unreliable point of view character, and one shocking twist after another elevate this to something quite different than what you have been watching, or think you have been watching.

   Aaron Kwok and Zhang Jingchu are attractive leads, but the film works because of the viewers’ expectations and knowledge of Chow Yun-Fat’s film history as the charismatic gangster hero with the magic guns and charmed life. The whole movie turns on the viewer’s expectation that this is a different movie than it actually turns out to be, and that is what makes it work.

   It does drag a bit here and there, and some are going to hate the fact it has subtitles.

   But while this is no Usual Suspects (might as well mention it, everyone is thinking it), it does take a fairly standard story of a young man seduced into crime by an older more charismatic figure who proves to have feet of clay, and turn it on its head at every point while providing thrills and spills and then ripping the rug out from under the viewer repeatedly until he is beaten into admiring submission.

   Yes, unreliable point of view characters are kind of cheating, but only if the movie doesn’t deliver, and this one mostly does, right up to the shocking finale when the Painter gets his comeuppance.

   I warn you though, you may kick yourself a bit for having been taken in emotionally as well as by the clever plot twists or hate the movie for leaving you rugless on a cold bare floor when the credits roll.