Thirty-something slacker Lau Kin-Ping (Derek Tsang) knows his life is going nowhere. When not bunkered down in the microscopic apartment he shares with his loud family, Ping works a dead-end job at a convenience store. Despite close scrutiny by an unpleasant boss (Lam Suet), Ping attempts to alleviate his boredom playing obnoxious pranks alongside his friendly co-worker Mabel (J. Arie). Late one night an old homeless man (Stanley Fung) walks into the store to buy a loaf of bread only to be so infuriated by the mean-spirited manager he stabs him in the neck with a pair of scissors! He then holds everyone in the store hostage including a bathroom-seeking fugitive who turns out to be even more unstable and dangerous. Before long more luckless customers join the list of hostages including a buxom hottie in a sexy cheerleader outfit (Anita Chui), a sleazy triad (Erik Kwok) and a would-be suicide bomber (Ken Lo). As different characters gain the upper hand and the situation spins ever more wildly out of control, Ping struggles to hold onto his sanity and survive the night.
A pitch black comedy thriller, Robbery spins an absurdist allegory about the state of modern Hong Kong. It is often said that the defining theme of Cantonese cinema has always been the disparity between rich and poor, from colonial times to the post-handover era. On a thematic level Robbery is perhaps the logical next step from the post-colonial nightmare depicted in Wilson Yip Wai-Shun's prescient Bio-Zombie (1998). Indeed despite inspired moments of hilarity the film's tone arguably runs closer to horror than comedy. Director Fire Lee off-sets the humour with unsettling, uncompromising levels of blood-drenched nihilism. Robbery puts forward the notion that Hong Kong is trapped in a cycle of desperation, exploitation and self-destruction presenting characters caught in an increasingly absurd situation that brings out their worst impulses. Veteran comic actor Lam Suet embodies what is arguably the key character. His loathsome convenience store manager continues hawking half-priced candy even while bullets are flying before taking an even nastier turn in the third act.
Lee cribs a few too many Tarantino-isms including a script laden with a lot of English profanity and a questionable misogynistic subplot centred on Anita Chui's 'cheerleader' character (despite her diverting lingerie-clad dance routine). Yet few HK films in recent years paint as potent and honest a portrait of life on the lowest social rung. The opening scenes establishing the dehumanizing effect of Ping's hopeless home-life are almost masterfully depressing, melding Ken Loach-style social commentary with Edgar Wright-style amped up visual comedy. Playing with our preconceptions about each character, Lee springs several pleasing twists and in the midst of an absurdly-escalating nightmare finds odd moments of pathos and humanity. Take the hilarious scene wherein a little boy wanders into the story forcing everyone to pretend to act normal, even ridiculously cheerful until he leaves and they coolly resume their Mexican stand-off. It plays like a parody of a sentimental moment in a John Woo movie.
Throughout the film Derek Tsang impresses as the flawed protagonist struggling to recover a sense of self-worth along with his humanity. He is surrounded by a solid ensemble of fresh faces and seasoned pros, some of whose characters reveal hidden depths while others prove more depraved than viewers previously imagined. It is certainly disconcerting, particularly for seasoned HK film fans, to see jovial comic performers like Stanley Fung and Lam Suet portray such nasty, self-serving, downright horrific characters. Interestingly Robbery co-opts Fung's My Lucky Stars (1985) co-star Jackie Chan as a metaphor for the supposedly stagnant state of modern Hong Kong, drawing a parallel between his unwavering status as the number one box office star and the inability of young no-hopers like Ping to make their mark. If the Tales from the Crypt-like finale treads beyond cynical social commentary into ponderous metaphysical territory at least things end on a note of frail optimism.