Project Gutenberg is a fun, wild ride with a divisive final twist

Society & Culture

An award-winning Hong Kong crime thriller from the co-writer of Infernal Affairs and starring Chow Yun-fat and Aaron Kwok. What could go wrong?


Almost a year after it hit Chinese theaters and grossed more than $150 million, the crime-thriller Project Gutenberg 无双 is now available to stream on Amazon Video. Earlier this April, the movie conquered the Hong Kong Film Awards, winning prizes in Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and four other categories. Given its all-star production team, it might not be surprising that the movie was such a hit. Felix Chong 庄文强, co-writer of the classic thriller Infernal Affairs 无间道, wrote and directed Project Gutenberg, and Hong Kong megastars Chow Yun-fat 周润发 and Aaron Kwok 郭富城 are pitted against each other in leading roles.

Kwok plays Lee Man, a timid counterfeiter who winds up in Hong Kong police custody. The authorities hope Lee can help them nab Chow’s character, a ruthless man nicknamed “The Painter.” Lee is terrified to talk; the Painter used to be his boss, and he’s sure to kill everyone in the police station if Lee reveals even the slightest secret. Despite his own involvement in the Painter’s crimes, Lee gets a deal that he’ll be set free if he tells the police everything. Yuen Man, an artist and old flame of Lee’s, shows up to listen to his confession.

Over the course of a long, convoluted flashback, Lee starts the story at the very beginning. He was once a painter, struggling to get by with Yuen in the Vancouver art scene. After a decade of not being able to sell a single painting, Lee is ready to call it quits. While Yuen is on the way to get her own exhibition, Lee’s work is slammed as being a copy of better artists. Lee’s knack for imitation leads him to forge paintings for cash, a hustle that introduces him to the Painter, the head of a counterfeit money scheme. The Painter is very impressed with Lee’s skills, so much so that he manages to push the failed artist into his gang.

Specifically, the Painter wants to figure out how to make a “superdollar,” a perfect replica of an American hundred-dollar bill. If Lee can do the job, he’ll be set for life, allowing him to provide for Yuen. But while Lee is cowardly and gentle, the sharply-dressed Painter is bold and violent. He controls the gang with an iron fist, threatening to cut off the hands of any members who go against his rules. A hard wake-up call for Lee comes when the Painter orders the crew to steal two buckets of ink, leaving a trail of corpses behind.

Even though Chow plays a complete psychopath of a villain here, it’s hard not to be reminded of his antihero roles from ‘80s gangster movies like City on Fire 龙虎风云 and A Better Tomorrow 龙虎风云. Ignoring its CGI explosions and (comparatively) bloodless shoot-outs, Project Gutenberg feels a lot like a throwback to the sort of heroic bloodshed movies that made Chow’s career. The story is twisty and melodramatic, there’s enough slow-mo to make John Woo proud, and the trigger-happy Painter even has a habit of holding and firing two guns at a time. The shoot-outs are great, and a sequence when the Painter more-or-less takes on a crime lord’s entire army is especially amusing, complete with a disembodied hand setting off a grenade.

As enjoyable as these action pieces are, Project Gutenberg stumbles with its story over the last 20 minutes or so. For the most part, I sympathized with Lee, and I liked his rocky relationship with the Painter. The counterfeiting background is neat, but loses focus as the Painter descends into more extreme acts of violence. During its final section, the movie throws much of its character development out the window with a twist that at best can be called “mind-blowing,” and at its worst might be called “pointless.”

For the sake of spoilers, I won’t go into details about this development, but it bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain American neo-noir. (A similarity other viewers have — spoiler alert — noted and debated.) Your final judgment on Project Gutenberg might well rest on this late twist. For myself, I found it a disappointment, but not something that derailed the entire experience. It can’t compete with Infernal Affairs and the rest of the Hong Kong action pantheon, but Project Gutenberg is a fun and wild ride for what it’s worth.

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