At the time of writing, A Guilty Conscience <毒舌大狀> has already made HK$30 million and still counting at the Hong Kong box office, proving Dayo Wong’s hot streak continues since hitting the jackpot in Agent Mr Chan <棟篤特工> five years ago.
Of course, let’s not forget about last year’s Table for Six <飯戲攻心>, which famously surpassed box-office expectations to the point it earned HK$77.2 million, beating Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle <功夫> (2004) not only as the highest-grossing local comedy ever made but also the second highest-grossing domestic film behind Warriors of Future <明日戰記> (HK$81.9 million).
In A Guilty Conscience <毒舌大狀>, Dayo Wong plays Adrian Lam, a cynical magistrate who takes his job for granted. When he is invited over to join a private legal firm by one of his peers (Vincent Kok), his first job as a defence lawyer involves a case of a wrongfully accused woman (Louise Wong’s Jolene Tsang), who allegedly abused her seven-year-old mute daughter. What begins as a child-abuse case in which Lam figures he can win the case confidently in no time, but the tables have turned after Tsang is charged with manslaughter following the death of her daughter in the hospital. And it gets worse from there when Lam made a careless mistake that ends up with Tsang being sentenced to jail for 17 years.
Following the embarrassing defeat, it wasn’t until two years later that Lam is given a second chance to redeem his mistake by proving Tsang’s innocence with a retrial. With the help of his legal team including Evelyn Fong (Renci Yeung) and Prince (Ho Kai-Wa), Lam is determined to win the case, even though he has to face the tough prosecutor, Kam Yuen-Shan (Tse Kwan-Ho).
Dayo Wong certainly has a field day playing the magistrate-turned-lawyer, whose signature sardonic wits and laidback personality resulted in a few worthwhile comedic moments. But it wasn’t just the comedy that hits the mark in A Guilty Conscience <毒舌大狀> as Jack Ng (Wai-Lun), who finally made his directorial debut after spending decades writing screenplays from Hit Team <重裝警察> (2001) to the acclaimed Anita Mui biopic, Anita <梅艷芳> (2021), does an excellent job turning the movie into an engaging courtroom drama.
This, in turn, allows Wong to flex his dramatic acting muscles and a rarity at that, considering his primary forte comes from a comedy background. But Wong sure proved his worth as a versatile actor who can alternate between comedy and drama and it also helps that Ng’s confident direction in meshing the absurd comedy and the aforementioned courtroom drama. A Guilty Conscience <毒舌大狀> may have been long, clocking at 135 minutes but it hardly feels tedious even for a movie like this relies heavily on dialogue.
Sure, the courtroom scenes may have been overly dramatic, particularly during the climactic third act between Adrian Lam and Kam Yuen-Shan. But it’s hard to deny all the entertaining speeches and debates that elevate the movie, thanks to the overall well-written screenplay credited to Jack Ng, Terry Lam and Jay Cheung. The plot itself, as in Tsang’s case is predictable if you are familiar enough with the courtroom drama genre typically seen in Hong Kong movies and TVB series.
In other words, Ng isn’t here to break any new ground, let alone a fresh or unique angle. As mentioned earlier, he succeeded in combining the two genres while bringing out the best not only in Dayo Wong but also in the rest of the strong supporting cast including Louise Wong, Renci Yeung and Tse Kwan-Ho. Louise Wong, who won a well-deserved Best New Performer for last year’s 40th Hong Kong Film Awards for her titular role in Anita <梅艷芳>, continues to showcase her impressive acting range as the falsely-accused Jolene Tsang. She also reunites with her Anita <梅艷芳> co-star Fish Liew, where the latter equally delivers solid support as the wealthy heiress, Victoria.
Between the predictability of the case and the entertaining genre mishmash, A Guilty Conscience <毒舌大狀> is filled with both familiar and subtle messages related to redemption, greed, power and above all, the injustice of the Hong Kong legal system. Given the subject matter, it may have been something that you wouldn’t expect to be released during the Chinese New Year season. But then again, it’s nice to see something different for a change (read: not the usual Chinese New Year comedies).