The Goldfinger: an ostentatious Hong Kong crime thriller

Infernal Affairs stars Tony Leung and Andy Lau return as on-screen adversaries in Felix Chong’s flashy, blockbuster-level staging of a real-life financial corruption scandal in 1980s Hong Kong.

Updated: 24 January 2024

By Tony Rayns

Tony Leung as Henry Ching in The Goldfinger (2023)
Sight and Sound

Despite co-scripting the Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-03), Felix Chong is largely unknown to UK audiences. The director or co-director of his own scripts since 2009, Chong’s expertise is in turning true-ish crime stories into viable generic entertainments, and in The Goldfinger, an extended riff on a real-life Hong Kong corruption scandal of the early 1980s, he does exactly that. More interesting than the storyline, though, is the underlying determination to give the ailing Hong Kong film industry a shot of adrenalin. The film’s generous budget and lavish staging (complete with meticulous recreations of 1980s fashions and technology), plus the careful avoidance of anything that could give the censors in Beijing cause for concern, show that everyone concerned was aiming to produce a blockbuster. Pairing Tony Leung and Andy Lau as on-screen adversaries for the first time since Infernal Affairs underlines the film’s ambitions.

Chong’s script is based fairly closely on the downfall of the Carrian Group in 1983, with the group’s founder-chairman George Tan reinvented as Henry Ching, played as an opaque cipher for ruthless cunning by Tony Leung. The real-life George Tan arrived in Hong Kong as a Singaporean bankrupt in the early 70s; the film’s Henry Ching is shown arriving on a cargo boat from nowhere in particular, living in a tiny rented space and pulling off a smart financial swindle with the help of rich kid K.K. Tsang (Simon Yam), who becomes Ching’s regular business partner. The Goldfinger zips through that backstory in a concise prefatory chapter, which also notes the founding of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), initially to tackle major problems in the police force, before cutting sharply to “Eleven years later” – and the start of an ICAC operation to bring down Henry Ching, by then an ‘untouchable’ business magnate with matchless social connections.

Tony Leung and Andy Lau as Henry Ching and Lau Kaiyuen in The Goldfinger (2023)

The film charts Henry Ching’s rise and eventual downfall through the prism of the ICAC investigation, starting with his arrest by senior officer Lau Kaiyuen (Andy Lau in a glorified supporting role) after a guided tour of the conference rooms, kitchen and art-gallery displays of his ultra-opulent office. Snatches of testimony from witnesses and associates at ICAC HQ become triggers for flashbacks to the key events and phases in Ching’s career: his first significant real-estate acquisition (the resonantly named Golden Hill House), the expansion into overseas investments led by K.K.Tsang, success in twisting the arms of Hong Kong’s four major banks to secure huge loans. Chong echoes The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) in showing hordes of near-nude women deployed to celebrate market successes and reward duped investors, but shows Ching himself to be in effect asexual. He’s seen acquiring an exceptionally capable personal assistant (Carmen Cheung, played by pop star Charlene Choi), and goes on to name his growing conglomerate after her, but the film leaves questions about their personal relationship unresolved and shows Ching pressing Carmen to sleep with stockbroker Chung (Michael Ning), knowing that he will be an essential ally. From that point on, Ching is always shown as celibate. His feelings about the violent, unexplained deaths of close associates like Carmen and Chung are not shown.

As in his co-directed Overheard trilogy (2009-14) and his Chow Yun fat vehicle The Counterfeiter (aka Project Gutenberg, 2019), Chong’s by-numbers approach to characterisation and individual psychology is sidelined by florid visuals. Gold is inevitably the dominant motif, but he splashes everything from slam-bang montages (some integrating documentary footage) to carefully engineered visual coups across the screen, just as directors like Tsui Hark and John Woo did in the good old days of Hong Kong movies. The need for political caution mandates the invention of a Muslim country in south-east Asia called ‘ Timurlaysia’ and the downplaying of British colonial involvement in Ching’s schemes (although ‘Rule Britannia’ is sung at one point); Chong has Henry Ching brag about having “far more powerful” people behind him, but doesn’t speculate who they might be. Philippine president Ferdinand and First Lady Imelda Marcos (played by actors) are shown welcoming Henry Ching, but suggestions of KGB involvement and battles over drugs in the Golden Triangle are dismissed as unfounded rumours.

The Goldfinger shows the ICAC investigation finally bringing Henry Ching to book, but stresses how long it took and how much it cost. It was of course the colonial government that created the ICAC, so no specific blame is attached to unseen colonial officials. How the story resonates with Hong Kong’s new situation under China’s National Security Law is left unexplored. 

 ► The Goldfinger is in UK cinemas now. 

Originally published: 15 January 2024