Daniel Chan's gangland coming-of-age saga ticks many of the right boxes, but is never able to rise above the constraints of its genre. This, combined with a lack of star power and heavyweight acting talent, mean that Triad is at best a competent entry in the vast canon of Hong Kong gangster flicks, but one that fails to leave a lasting impression.
Three school friends, William (william Chan), Edward (Edward Tsui) and Derek (Derek Tsang), become increasingly embroiled in the Mongkok triad scene after they get into a bar fight with an established young lieutenant from a rival society. Despite recently graduating from university, William is attracted away from a promising business career by the money, power and women associated with a life of crime.
With Hong Kong reeling in the wake of the handover, William goes to work for a local gangster, Patrick (Patrick Tam), who controls the fruit markets. Frustrated by the lack of glamour in this particular racket, William is tempted away by an old school friend to start debt collecting, only to fall for the boss' wayward daughter, Michelle (Michelle Wai).
As William makes a name for himself, rising through the ranks to eventually make a bid for gang leader, we see the environment of the city change with him - from the perceived glory days during British colonial rule, to a more uncertain future as Hong Kong slowly reintegrates with the mainland, losing its identity and power in the process.
As one might expect from a film like Triad, these more profound messages are often eschewed in favour of depicting the dizzy highs and bloody lows of being a Hong Kong street punk. Most of the action takes place in bars, nightclubs and crowded market streets, with as much attention paid to the characters' outrageous fashion choices and elaborate tattoos as to their actions and motivations.
Former boy band star William Chan takes his first leading role, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is out of his depth, even with material as shallow and familiar as this. He certainly looks the part when strutting his stuff through the badlands of central Mongkok, but fails to produce any kind of spark with Michelle Wai's good-girl-gone-bad. As rival gangs square off, loyalties are tested and blood brothers fall to the blades of their rivals, but Chan can do little more than look on quizzically.
Fortunately there is solid support waiting in the wings. Patrick Tam is particularly charismatic as the boss-cum-older brother to William and his buddies, effortlessly rising above his inexperienced co-stars whenever he is on screen. His affable, honourable and thoroughly decent gangster is almost too much of a nice guy, to the point you may start questioning how he could ever have risen to power when everyone around him is so unforgiving and vicious, but Tam's natural charm wins out.
Irene Wan, playing the black widow left in charge of the rival gang when her hotheaded husband is brutally slain, more than holds her own in this male-dominated environment. Without using her gender or sexuality so much as her downright ruthlessness, Irene succeeds where so many men have failed, maintaining the social order whatever the cost.
Chan Wai Man also pops up as the elder statesman of Mongkok's triad societies, ruling over all from his mah jong table, and worldly wise in ways many of these young upstarts will never live long enough to become.
However, these three performances are from a far better film than Triad ever manages to be, never coming close to Johnnie To's level of social commentary or the youthful exuberance of Andrew Lau's Young and Dangerous series. Instead, like its protagonists, it can do little more than imitate its idols, sustain itself with ill-placed confidence, and in doing so, deliver only on the most superficial of levels. Like its woefully generic and inconspicuous title, Triad fails to make any kind of name for itself.
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