It’s been a while but welcome to another entry in my Tough Guys, Gangsters, and Delinquents in Asian Pop Culture series! To read the other entries in this series, click here. Otherwise, continue on and remember, this breakdown has more spoilers than a bad batch of seafood at a buffet!
There are some actors who generate such a strong sense of sweetness and kindness that you can’t help empathizing with the characters they play, even if they’re villains. Gong Yoo is a good example of this or my beloved Xu Yue, who radiates such decency and integrity, I want to search out her parents and congratulate them on a job well done.
And then there are some actors whose darkness and scariness seep through the sweetest performance. Louis Koo’s eyes hint at buried bodies even in his slapstick comedy roles, and Nakashima Mika looks like she knows exactly where they are.
When directors know how to harness these depths in actors, you get performances so complete that it’s difficult to separate the role from the actor. In Mr. Six, that performance belongs to Feng Xiaogang, whom many of you will recognize as the boss of the Crocodile Gang in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle. Feng plays the eponymous Mr. Six (or more accurately, Brother Six), an aging Beijing tough guy whose kind heart keeps him busy either picking fights or stopping them. Feng’s performance is so lived in–making full use of his curled Beijing accent and a voice cured by age, alcohol, and tobacco–you see not just the older man that he is but also glimpses of what he was probably like as a young delinquent.
Brother Six isn’t an ordinary gangster who’s out to exploit and harass people; instead, he uses his fists to make sure that the weak and vulnerable are protected and that the bullies and rude assholes get taught a lesson. Brother Six is the kind of guy who’ll give up everything for a friend–or even a stranger in need, and despite all of Brother Six’s kindness and generosity, there’s a look in his eye that tells you it would be a very bad idea to fuck with him, like there’s embers somewhere that can blaze up at any time.
Brother Six reminds me a lot of my mom, which is funny because she really dislikes Feng Xiaogang (“Look at that guy! You can tell he’s a bad egg!”). My mom is a tough guy much in the same vein as Brother Six: in Manila, she once dogwalked a woman who refused to let her child get free surgery to correct his cleft lip (the woman wanted him with a cleft so he could continue begging on the street). My mom also shouted down the woman’s jobless husband and dragged both parents to city hall to get the kid’s birth certificate for the surgery. At the end of it all, while commuting for an hour and a half each way every day for months, she found both parents jobs, got the kid’s surgery arranged, made sure that the five other siblings were enrolled in school, and paid the deposit for a rental so the family could stay off the streets. And she did all that while running a free weekend school for slum kids, which included meals that she cooked for them, caring for my invalid father, and volunteering her cooking skills at a temple. If you’re tired just from hearing about this, imagine how tiring actually doing this stuff is.
Just like my mom, Brother Six has to intervene when he sees someone in trouble, even if he can’t afford to help out. As he’s on the way to finding his estranged son, he comes across a young girl sitting on the sidewalk in the cold with a sign laid out on the ground explaining her predicament and her need for money. She tells Brother Six that she’s a student from the countryside and before she can explain further, he interrupts her and says that he doesn’t care whether she’s lying or not and gives her money that he himself needs urgently.
Feng’s expressions as Brother Six are a marvel here: we see pity and understanding for the young student overlaid with cynicism and then a kind of resignation and acceptance in fate and an acknowledgement that true kindness doesn’t have strings attached.
In many tough-guy stories, tough guys end up in over their heads because of a kind act that involves them in dangerous and complicated situations. It’s not so much a case of “no good deed goes unpunished” as it is how these kind acts often come after a lifetime of criminal activity, and this moment of kindness is taken advantage of by the people that the tough guy has pissed off or wronged previously.
However, in Mr. Six, it’s not kindness but negligence that acts as a catalyst. In his youth, Brother Six was too busy getting into scrapes and dealing with his brothers and community to pay much attention to his son. And now his estranged adult son, Xiao Bo (Li Yifeng) is going around acting in a way that goes against Brother Six’s principles by basically being a little bitch. Xiao Bo ends up petulantly scratching up a very expensive Enzo Ferrari that belongs to rich kid Xiao Fei (Kris Wu) over a girl-related squabble.
Like most tough guys, Brother Six doesn’t have a lot of money, and he painstakingly collects RMB2,000 to bring to the garage hangout where Xiao Fei and his buddies are keeping Xiao Bo hostage, only to find out that the paint job will cost RMB100,000. This causes a concatenation of events that leads Brother Six and his aging sworn brothers to face off against the goons that Xiao Fei’s father hires.
The anti-capitalist themes that run through most tough-guy narratives are particularly strong in this film. Not only is there a huge contrast between Brother Six and these young Thundercats who think they’re so tough because they’re rich and privileged, but even one of Brother Six’s former cohorts, Matchstick, also falls prey to capitalism. He’s now a wealthy entrepreneur and when Brother Six approaches him for help, he gives Brother Six money but tells him to make an appointment next time he visits. It’s a huge show of disrespect, treating someone who’s a sworn brother like an acquaintance, and Brother Six is disgusted by Matchstick’s attitude.
This scene is immediately followed by a scene of a man threatening to jump to his death. The crowd watching below mostly reacts with cynicism and casual cruelty, leading Brother Six to castigate the crowd for their cold-heartedness. Both scenes (and many others) serve as an indictment of how modern capitalism has created a society that no longer cares about relationships and the welfare of others.
Tough-guy narratives are inherently nostalgic–they look back to a time when being a tough guy had clear obligations and requirements, as well as a time when people cared for each other as a community before the ravages of capitalism and/or modernity (which made people greedier, encouraged selfishness, and so on). Brother Six tells a young delinquent: “People nowadays just want to avoid everything.”
In the “old days”, tough guys rose up the ranks because of old-fashioned things like loyalty, resilience, courage, and friendship. And so, they’re inevitably contrasted with the current youth, who are seen as lacking in these qualities. The young Thundercats in Mr. Six are rude and disrespectful, with no understanding of how less privileged people struggle and suffer.
It’s no surprise that Mr. Six was hugely popular in mainland China, where a deep generation gap has opened. The film is as much about parenting as it is about what happens to aging tough guys (true to genre, Brother Six gets the glorious death treatment), and it’s a reflection of how the older generation has suffered, struggled, and sacrificed to give their children comfortable and privileged lives, only to get mixed feelings that the kids are too soft and don’t understand hardship. In the interest of fairness, the film also does show how kids themselves are unable to understand or appreciate how difficult life was in the old days–a testament to China’s amazing economic development and also a critique about the price paid for it.
While the film looks at how tough guys like Brother Six end up neglecting their children, it casts more judgment at fathers like Xiao Fei’s, who replace fatherly love with money and end up with unloved kids who are damaged by materialism. In the end, Xiao Fei is impressed, if not moved, by Brother Six’s integrity and love for his son. Sad and beautiful boy Kris Wu does decent work in this scene, and his features lend themselves well to portraying a petulant spoiled brat. I do have to say that I was amused by a scene where, to show his elite status, he’s shown drinking coffee in what I assume is supposed to be a Wedgwood cup (with a spoon left in it, too). The Sobranie Black Russians are a nice touch, though, and makes me miss those candy cigarettes we had in the 80s. What a time!
When I looked at tough guys and fatherhood previously, it was clear that the two weren’t compatible unless the tough guy changed or died. A sacrifice is necessary in order for the child to grow up and find happiness, and Brother Six complies by giving up his life because he simply cannot change. This new society has no room for men like him; and it’s up to Xiao Bo to find his way through it on his own after having learned by the end how important his father’s legacy is.
I should say here that this film sounds like a downer but it’s actually quite lively and full of energy, with an ending that’s actually quite hopeful and a really fantastic soundtrack to boot. But I think the scene that most people will come away remembering is this: somewhere in the middle of the film, Brother Six visits a corrupt politician’s house to secretly feed the man’s pet ostrich. He tells the ostrich that it should escape, and what a shame it is that it’s traveled so far to Beijing just to be locked up in a cage. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the ostrich is kind of a metaphor for Brother Six–a wild animal who doesn’t belong in an urban environment, hemmed in by rich people.
On his way to the big brawl that will end his life, and knowing that he’s dying of a terminal illness anyway, Brother Six suddenly sees the ostrich running on the streets of Beijing after escaping from captivity. Delighted, Brother Six pedals his bicycle furiously after the bird, and he yells, “Run! Keep running!”
And those are the last words we’ll hear him say in the film.
From Mr. Six we go up a number to Scissor Seven in the next entry in this series!