Once a box-office poison, stand-up comedian and actor Dayo Wong finally struck gold in the late 2010s when he starred in ‘Agent Mr. Chan’ – a wacky espionage send-up that became the highest-grossing Hong Kong film in 2018 and to a lesser extent, the martial arts parody ‘The Grand Grandmaster’ two years later. Both comedies have met with varying degrees of success that somehow resonated with (most) Hong Kong moviegoers, even though I personally thought ‘Agent Mr. Chan’ and ‘The Grand Grandmaster’ were overrated movies lacking genuine laughs and sharp wits.
It wasn’t until Dayo Wong appeared in last year’s ‘Table for Six’, easily one of the best Hong Kong comedies of 2022 and even went on to become the second highest-grossing Hong Kong film of all time, earning higher-than-expected HK$77 million at the domestic box office. Well, I’m happy to say that Dayo Wong did it again in ‘A Guilty Conscience’. He plays Adrian Lam, whom we first met as a magistrate who doesn’t take his job seriously, resulting in a series of humorous moments that put Wong’s signature witty remarks into good use.
When his legal friend (Vincent Kok) convinces him to join his private law firm, Lam immediately gets his first case defending his client, top model Jolene Tsang (Louise Wong) for allegedly abusing her 7-year-old daughter. He figures the case is a walk in the park, only to find himself subsequently suffering an embarrassing loss after his last witness – Tsang’s lover and doctor, Desmond Chung (Adam Pak) – changes his statement during the trial. Lam’s gross negligence in mishandling the case not only caused the otherwise innocent Jolene Tsang ends up serving a 17-year prison sentence but also further ruined his own reputation as a barrister.
Lam has since burdened himself with guilt and tries his best to make amends by looking for ways to appeal to the court for a retrial with the help of his same legal team Evelyn Fong (Renci Yeung) and Prince (Ho Kai-Wa) to free Tsang. However, Lam also faces another challenge after James Tung (Michael Wong), a legal advisor who works for the wealthy Chung family decided to land prosecutor Kam Yuen Shan (Tse Kwan-Ho) for the retrial.
‘A Guilty Conscience’ marks screenwriter Jack Ng (Wai-Lun)’s directorial debut, whose prior credits include some of Dante Lam’s notable films such as ‘Beast Stalker’ (2008), ‘The Stool Pigeon’ (2010) and ‘Unbeatable’ (2013). He previously co-wrote the acclaimed Anita Mui biopic, ‘Anita’, which also starred then-first-time actress Louise Wong in the title role.
Ng may have been a first-time director but he manages to prove his worth in balancing the snarky comedy and the more dramatic side of the movie’s courtroom-drama genre, thanks to his overall confident direction that keeps us amused and engaged throughout the movie. Dayo Wong’s combination of sharp-tongued and articulate speeches is among the main reasons that made the otherwise dialog-heavy ‘A Guilty Conscience’ compulsively watchable.
But it wasn’t only Wong’s comedic talent that shines here as Jack Ng even brings out the best in him when comes to pulling off a rare dramatic performance. This is something out of the ordinary, given the fact that Wong is primarily known as a comedian. It was nevertheless one of his best performances to date and most likely to land a Best Actor nomination for next year’s Hong Kong Film Awards.
The rest of the cast is just as commendable, including Louise Wong and fellow ‘Anita’ co-star Fish Liew’s respectively solid supporting turns as the wrongfully accused Jolene Tsang and Desmond Chung’s jealous rich wife, Victoria. The same also goes for Renci Yeung, Ho Kai-Wa as well as Tse Kwan-Ho, and even Michael Wong in his small role as James Tung.
Jack Ng, who is also credited as one of the screenwriters, pretty much treads on familiar ground in its storyline. The murder case is something we have seen many times before in such a genre regardless of feature-length films or TV series. And yet, for all the predictable outcome of the case from the false accusation that befalls Jolene Tsang to the eventual motive and the real culprit responsible for the death of Tsang’s daughter, what matters the most is how Ng pieces everything together in a coherent and utmost entertaining way possible.
The case may have lacked the element of surprise but Ng compensates for that with the aforementioned excellent acting showcase and an absorbing storytelling approach, notably the way he turns the courtroom trial into a circus of heated debates and verbal arguments between the defense attorney (Dayo Wong’s Adrian Lam) and the prosecutor (Tse Kwan-Ho’s Kam Yuen Shan). The courtroom scenes tend to borderline into a parody of sorts but that’s the beauty of ‘A Guilty Conscience’. It doesn’t take itself too seriously to the point it makes you feel like you are watching a typical courtroom drama.