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Fantasia 2015 Review: Robbery Is Playfully Nihilistic and Depressingly Hopeful

By  · Published on August 1st, 2015


Fantasia International Film Festival 2015 runs 7/14–8/4. Follow our coverage here.

Writer/director Fire Lee’s feature debut, Robbery, is a stylish, extremely violent comedy that mixes laughs, bloodletting, social commentary and Pop Rocks blowjobs together for an entertaining, flawed and wholly unpredictable experience. For better or worse, you will not see the final ten minutes coming.

Richard is wealthy, powerful, lusted after by scantily clad women and nothing more than a fictional figment of Lau Kin Ping’s (Derek Tsang) mind. Those attributes make the ideal man in his view, but it’s an impossible goal for a 32 year old living with his parents and working a dead-end job. Ping introduces us to the real world – his world – via narration that quickly makes clear how dire things are for people struggling to make their mark. As if to frame the collective hopelessness, two newlyweds crash to the ground near him one morning having chosen to jump to their deaths rather than face the harsh reality of life.

Things start looking up when he’s hired as a clerk at an all-night convenience store, but his very first shift might also be his last as a motley crew of co-workers, customers and violent criminals make it a night he hopes to live long enough to remember.

Ping knows he’s a loser lacking the ambition, drive and talents necessary to grow beyond his situation and achieve greatness, but he and the film also acknowledge the role a person’s present environment has in shaping their future. He borrows Bruce Lee’s famous “Be water” quote and adapts it to a world where the poor stay poor. “Put a nobody in the ghetto,” he says, “and he becomes the ghetto.” It’s a heavy theme for a film that also sinks to the level of toilet humor – as in the sounds of someone shitting – more than once, but it’s just one of many examples where the movie tries to walk a line between extremes.

The fun, fluff side of things delivers some solid laughs and stylishly-shot action beats as Ping plays straight man to an ever-growing group of eccentric characters trying to get by in their own way. A local mobster, a dirty cop, a recently paroled thief and others find their way into the store, and as the night ticks on they each muscle and maneuver their way into control of the rest. There are some logic issues as opportunities for escape are repeatedly ignored, but Lee keeps things moving at a brisk pace and an energetic soundtrack.

The flip-side though is an uneven tone as the film’s high mortality rate and the graphic routes people take on their way there. It’s extremely bloody, and like the numerous Quentin Tarantino knockoffs that hit screens post-Pulp Fiction Lee lets too much of the gratuitous violence and “fun” dialogue take the place of character depth and story. It’s all kept extremely playful even as death and cruelty hang in the air – we’re meant to have fun and care about these characters’ demises, but only one of those intentions succeeds.

Lee’s script is a bit shaky when it comes to his two female characters too – Mabel (J. Arie) is a possible love interest, and Anita Chui plays little more than a sex object. Mabel is fun and engaging early on, but the more we learn about her it becomes clear how overly invested she is in her need for a man’s love. Chui’s character is defined even more clearly by her relation to men as she’s skimpily dressed through the entire film and degraded more than once. The men here constantly leer at her, and while a brief lesson about not judging books by their covers is touched on the camera never stops objectifying her.

Character and tone issues aside, Robbery remains an enjoyable, anarchy-fueled romp that aims for fun and hits its mark. The commentary on Hong Kong’s economic divide feels at times like an afterthought, but the slight weight it adds is a subtext worth discussing. And the ending? It’s not necessarily earned and seems to contradict the eighty minutes of cynicism that precede it, but it’s so poignant in its possibility that it becomes an affecting coda all the same.

Fantasia International Film Festival 2015 runs 7/14–8/4. Follow our coverage here.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.