Hong Kong triad movies! The Americans have long since given up, making the gangster movies of old, but Hong Kong continues relentlessly with it's own special brand of gangster films. The most famous series of triad films is the "Young & Dangerous" series. Five films, a prequel, and three more of less official sequels. That would make this "Young and Dangerous 8" if they were all numbered. I saw this film before I saw any of the other "Young and Dangerous" films, but that wasn't a problem. References to the other movies are reduced to name dropping and a last minute surprise cameo from one of the series' regulars.
"Portland Street Blues" is a fantastic film. Well acted, well written, beautifully shot, and moody as hell. It never romanticises the gangster world, and it never turns everything to black and white.
Triad stories are violent in nature, but "Portland Street Blues" is surprisingly subdued. It's focus is always characters over action, and that's exactly why it works. All the gun battles in the world doesn't mean a damn, if you don't care about the characters shooting at each other.
Sisters Thirteen is the center of the story, in every way. That works well, because she is a complex character. She never asked to get where she is, but she really has no choice. In this man's world there's only one place for a woman: In a bed, on her back. But Thirteen refuses to surrender to that stereotype. She carves a name for herself in a male dominated world, because she has to, but that doesn't mean she has to like it. She never seems truly comfortable with her position. Her confusion as to her sexual orientation adds yet another layer to the character and gives the film extra credibility.
Playing the part of Sister Thirteen with not a hint of moviestar glamour, Sandra Ng is the true heart of this film. With her tomboy looks, wide smile and too large ears she plays the younger version of Sister Thirteen as both cute and innocent. But gradually she becomes more hardened. The transformation is subtle and believable. The older version of Thirteen has an emptiness in her eyes, that reveals she's seen too much too soon, and that she's never really loved anybody. Sandra Ng won both the Hong Kong Film Award and the Hong Kong Film Critic Society Award for best leading actress. Very well deserved.
Shu Qi is frighteningly effective as Scarface. Just watch the scene where we first see her take a fix: With a cigaret in the corner of her mouth, dewy eyes and sunken cheeks, she puts the needle in her arm with no hesitation. As the drugs begin to take effect, she leans back towards the rocky wall and smoke from the last drag of the cigaret slowly seeps out of her mouth. In this moment her true beauty is but a faint memory. The sight is heartbreaking. This part is a far cry from the kind of roles she's otherwise getting, but look close. Whatever part of herself she's using to find this character is the same she's using in less serious roles, and the sole reason she a star. She's got talent. A killer body to go with it, sure, but don't let that distract you from the fact that she really can act.
In the part of Coke, Alex Fong is instantly likeable. He delivers a cool subdued performance, the kind that would have turned him into a star overnight had this been a Hollywood film.
Kristy Yeung also makes an impression as Yun, but to be fair, it's mainly because she looks so damn hot. Some of the supporting players overacts to the point of the absurd in some of the small gangster parts, but I guess we're used to that in Hong Kong movies, so it's easily forgiven.
The story is easy to follow, despite flashbacks within flashbacks, because it unfolds so naturally. Even newcomers to Hong Kong cinema should have few problems keeping up. Just make sure you remember the character names, otherwise you'll soon be lost.
With the exception of perhaps "City of Glass" this is the film that most effectively displays Shu Qi's dramatic talent. Also, it's a damn fine film. In short: Highly recommended.