By the time the 90’s were beginning to crawl to a close the new-wave from the Hong Kong scene was revered by cult-worshipping aficionados in the States. A friend of mine caught wind of the talk and, through the kindness of the video store clerks working underneath the pizza place I worked at, we checked out a couple of the best known titles. A Better Tomorrow, the movie which brought John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat into the international consciousness, seemed to be the standard bearer of the new, gritty and violent cinematic vanguard which continued through the 80’s and into the 90’s.
I never invested fully in the genre so I’ve not kept up with the changes over time but the titles which I have come across all seem slick and over-produced, backed by big budgets and starring Asian pop-culture heartthrobs. By comparison Patrick Yau’s The Longest Nite (Um Fa back home) is the disturbed, pill-popping step-brother who hangs out in alleys looking for trouble. Its convoluted plot defies the standard paint-by-numbers framework utilized by most American action films to facilitate explosions and gore while similarly eschewing John Woo’s double-fisted hand-gun ballets. The violence is up-close and personal, the twists and turns as claustrophobic as city streets and everyone’s tired, grimy and angry.
Two warring triad factions call a truce when it is learned that an old Macau Godfather is returning to quell the violence, assuming that a united front would intimidate or pacify. On the eve of the Godfather’s arrival rumours are flying that a contract has been put out on one of the triad leaders, Lung, issued by the other, Brother K. High-ranking and trusted gangster Sam (Tony Leung) is assigned the task to ensure that nothing happens to Lung because Brother K swears he has ordered no such hit and that someone’s trying to throw the truce into disarray.
Fortunately Sam’s a plainclothes detective with a crew of hard-nosed partners who cruise the streets and enforce their own law. Shaking up the usual suspects in an attempt to uncover the truth behind the assassination plot (by crushing the hands of any two-bit gangster he can find with the aid of a bottle of condiments) he runs across a drifter named Tony (Ching Wan Lau) who has just arrived in town. There’s something in the way this stranger just sits there eating while Sam issues a beating across the dining room, or maybe just the way he looks, that puts Sam off and he suggests Tony leaves town.
Tony’s obviously up to no good, dragging his travel bag from a cheap motel to a ritzy casino, searching for Maggie (Maggie Siu), his local contact. Instead he runs into someone from his past, the flamboyant triad boss Mr. Lung. Some words are exchanged which quickly leads to a gun being drawn and the situation is only diffused by the antics of a nauseated hostess and the pleading the casino manager. Meanwhile Sam’s night is going from bad to worse when police discover a stripped and headless corpse in his house. Higher ranking triad lieutenants are pressuring him to find out what’s going on, the police are starting to see the body-count rise, and Sam’s beginning to realize that he’s getting closer to the crosshairs himself.
A wise decision was made to include some introductory narration explaining the drama between the triads and Sam’s role as protector of a former adversary. This quick-paced flick barely qualifies as feature length but manages to confound the viewer with only the events of one night. Partially I blame various story devices which take liberties with logic to add extra twists and partially I blame the whirlwind of characters who receive little introduction and who often end up not being very important to the plot. Still, the element of mystery is enjoyable, even if half the time the mystery is what’s going on to whom by whom and not why.
The exceptionally expressive Tony Leung adds a lot of depth to a character which is little more than a name and occupation. His ability to convey confusion, betrayal and fear are surprisingly understated for an action movie, but then again his career has been pretty evenly divided between similar genre flicks and more crafted dramatic roles; he is a favorite actor of Wong Kar-Wai. Ching Wan Lau captures another extreme, removing all emotional expression from his character to become a very convincing sociopath. His solemn, humourless and brooding bulk swings cadaverously through the film, conveying an undeniable sense of danger. The two leads play off one another very well, Leung’s hysterics bouncing off the measured coldness of Lau.
Stylistically the movie careens off walls and plunges down streets, barely able to capture what’s unfolding. It couldn’t be considered neo-realism, however, because there’s a very careful sense of style behind the cinematography. Disconcertingly there are moments of music video inspired shots, slow motion sequences and odd angles, but overall the concentration is on the kinetic rather than the artistic. The climactic showdown scene at the end, however, is a very long and unfortunate exercise in pretenion. The film looks either purposefully drab or the digital transfer was a hack-job, but the grainy textures, damp atmosphere and nicotine stained colors work well for the movie. These aren’t well-dressed mafia at the opera, these are guys gunning through the restaurant kitchen who have someone in a burlap sack downstairs.
Similarly the violence is pretty pretty brutal, even for a genre with typically high bodycounts. The difference, on the surface at least, is the reliance on physicality versus firepower. The aforementioned burlap sack is being beaten raw in a basement, not shot at from a speeding car. Unfortunately it’s also poorly orchestrated, with some of the sequences being laughable despite their savagery. Also interesting was the abuse Maggie Siu receives, and her character in general. While I suppose in many cases these kind of movies utilize women as scenery and that Siu’s casting can be considered a step towards an integrated casting she plays a cartoonish marionette who seems singled out for beating by the entire cast and crew. To say it’s unnecessary is an understatement.
The sound is functional except in some of the fight sequences where the foley work can’t compensate for the poor shadowboxing. What is worth mentioning is the awesomely bad 80’s moody synth soundtrack that plods through the entire movie. It’s not even enjoyable in an ironic sense unless you’re really into Silk Stockings. Yet somehow it works for the movie, blending in with the cheap shirts and clunky cars, but I was surprised to find this was made a decade later than I’d initially thought.
The subtitles were also functional, if a little choppy here and there. The widescreen transfer is questionable as I’m not sure if the movie is supposed to look as worn out and gritty as it seemed. I had the all region Hong Kong import on loan, but an American DVD was released and available via Netflix and probably elsewhere.
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