FILM DIARY: A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Tsui Hark, 1989)

Its narrative taking place at the fag-end of US involvement in Vietnam, Tsui Hark’s prequel to John Woo’s iconic A BETTER TOMORROW (1986) sees the ultra-cool Mark (Chow Yun-Fat) finding his Ken Takakura-esque shades, his distinctive Alain Delon-esque raincoat and his mojo through a relationship with action woman Kit (the incredible Anita Mui, who died tragically young in 2003).

As fans of HK cinema know, Woo planned a prequel to A BETTER TOMORROW that was set during the war in Vietnam but fell out with his producer Tsui Hark, and Hark went on to direct this picture whilst Woo made the somewhat similar BULLET IN THE HEAD (1990), also set during the Vietnam War.

Travelling to a Vietnam that is faced by a power vacuum – the Americans are on the verge of pulling out of Saigon, whilst the South Vietnamese forces have an iron grip on the city – Mark and his cousin Mun (Tony Leung) discover themselves enmeshed in an environment mired in corruption and bribery. ‘When they see cash, their eyes light up like headlights’, Mark observes in relation to the officials. At first, this works to their advantage – Mark bribing officials to release Mun from prison – but as the story progresses, these protagonists, joined by Kit, discover the human cost of this corruption.

It’s a corrupt, oppressive system that is represented through Bong (Nam Yim), a morally bankrupt commander in the South Vietnamese army who becomes the film’s chief antagonist. As the story develops, the characters repeatedly refer to gambling as a metaphor for life and a fatalistic worldview: ‘Our gambling chips are being played by others. We have no choice whether we win or lose. The only choice is whether or not to play’, Mark tells Kit.

Hark emulates Woo’s use of slow-motion and cross-cutting in A BETTER TOMORROW and A BETTER TOMORROW II, though in this picture the rhythms are all wrong and some scenes play out almost entirely with an undercranked camera, meaning that the slo-mo often feels more like simple padding than an attempt to capture the subjective experiences of the characters during moments of violence.

Early in the film, Mark and Mun witness a peaceful anti-war/anti-American demonstration by students, which is put down with force by the South Vietnamese forces before a couple of young women on a moped throw a bomb into the midst of the soldiers. A clear attempt to draw parallels between the immediate context of the story and the events of Tiananmen Square, this sequence offers a three-dimensional view of violence in a society dominated by corrupt authorities and guerilla warfare, the characters expressing in the dialogue concerns that such authoritarian violence might reach the shores of Hong Kong. For some time after the handover of Hong Kong took place, critics were suggesting that such anxieties in HK cinema were largely unfounded, but revisiting the film in September of 2019, with the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement protests still ongoing in Hong Kong – and provoking heavy-handed tactics from the Chinese authorities – some aspects of A BETTER TOMORROW III seem frighteningly prescient.

FILM DIARY: Red to Kill (Billy Tang, 1994)

One of the definitive Cat III pictures to come out of Hong Kong in the early 1990s, RED TO KILL differs from some of its contemporaries (Danny Lee and Billy Tang’s DR LAMB and Herman Yau’s UNTOLD STORY) by not having a ‘ripped from the headlines’ plot: unlike those films, which were based very loosely on true stories, RED TO KILL’s plot is entirely fictional.

An unashamedly combative film, RED TO KILL is anchored by Ben Ng’s incredible performance as Chan, the man who altruistically runs a home for mentally challenged adults but who by night turns into a brutal, absolutely feral rapist/murderer whose assaults are triggered by the colour red. Chan is by turns utterly calm and controlled, suited and booted by day; but by night, he is all jittery tics, rippling muscles and jock straps as he searches for his victims. It’s not a stretch to assert that the transformation from day-Chan to night-Chan is like the transformation of Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde, with the colour red as the alchemical ingredient that acts as a catalyst for the metamorphosis of the former into the latter.

The film builds some sympathy for Chan by depicting, through a vivid flashback, the incident in his childhood that led to his present-day triggering by the colour red: Chan’s father caught his mother with her lover, and the very young Chan was forced to watch as his mother and her lover butchered both Chan’s father and Chan’s young brother, the blood spattering across Chan’s face. Watching RED TO KILL, one might be reminded of Will Graham’s assertion in Michael Mann’s 1986 movie MANHUNTER: ‘My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks’.

The story builds towards a ferocious climax in which Chan, wielding a sledgehammer and wearing a wrestler’s cossie, hunts down the social worker (Money Lo) of one of his victims, the mentally handicapped Ming Ming (Lily Chung), with whom Chan has developed an obsessive fascination. Tang’s protacted handling of this climax and the manner in which he amps up the hysteria and violence has some equivalence in Tobe Hooper’s handling of the climax of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974).

As challenging as the narrative might be, RED TO KILL is incredibly photographed. For the most part, the night-time sequences are shot with blue gels, resulting in an almost monochromatic palette – shades of blue and black. This is disrupted, however, when the colour red appears on the screen – such as a potential victim in a red dress or wearing red shoes. This aesthetic is incredibly effective in placing the viewer within Chan’s mindset, and, as unlikely as it may seem, one might wonder whether cinematographer Tony Mau was influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES…

FILM DIARY: The Bridge (aka Most) (Hajrudin Krvavac, 1969)

THE BRIDGE is a Yugoslavian war picture in which Yugoslavian Partisans are sent to destroy a bridge that is vital to the occupying German forces. In this, they are assisted by the architect who designed the bridge; he must help the Partisans destroy this structure into which he invested his heart and soul.

Essentially a ‘man on a mission’ film in a similar vein to Robert Aldrich’s THE DIRTY DOZEN, released two years earlier, THE BRIDGE contains some incredibly well-staged action, photographed in a style that borrows from the visual paradigms of newsreels. Whilst the film seems to have one eye on the popularity of Spaghetti Westerns and Italian war movies of the era, there is nevertheless a gritty authenticity to the action that’s comparable to Sam Peckinpah’s approach in his 1977 war picture CROSS OF IRON, which was also shot in Yugoslavia. Perhaps it’s something to do with the locations…

At the end of the film, the bridge is detonated. Both the Partisans and the German opposition lament the fact that the ‘beautiful’ bridge had to be destroyed, a comment on the cost of war.

FILM DIARY: Hard Boiled (John Woo, 1992)

HARD BOILED is still, perhaps, the Ultima Thule of action films. There are action movies I prefer to it; and certainly in terms of John Woo’s pictures, I have a stronger preference for THE KILLER. However, the action in HARD BOILED is absolutely, spiffingly splendiferous. In fact, the action is so good that on the numerous occasions during which I’ve watched the film since first encountering it via its UK VHS release – which I rushed out to rent as soon as it was available – in the early 1990s, I’ve often found myself soaking up the eye candy, focusing on the spectacular action and forgetting about the plot.

And the plotting, to be fair, is of an equally high standard. There’s cross and counter-cross, complexity in relationships (Tony Leung’s conflicted undercover agent, Alan; Mad Dog’s dislike of the sadistic/nihilistic Johnny Wong), clever parallels drawn between Alan and Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat). The moment in which Tequila discovers the book in which Alan’s gun was hidden during the ‘hit’ in the library always struck me on first viewing as too much of a coincidence, but on reflection, viewing the film 20-something years later, I understand how important this scene is in establishing the bond of sympathy/empathy between Tequila and Alan.

Woo’s use of editing is exceptional, particularly the sharp cross-cutting between scenes to establish parallels of action and character, the use of freeze frames to punctuate moments of epiphany, and there are some incredibly-staged action sequences in which Woo shows his mastery of a screen vocabulary of action developed by Sam Peckinpah – which Woo extends and makes his own. For instance, it’s hard to disagree with the title of the video linked below when one reflects on how Woo achieved this incredible sequence of action in a single long take:

In fact, in the years since HARD BOILED’s first release, Hollywood has increasingly taken Woo’s lexis of cinematic action and attempted to interweave it into its own productions – initially by co-opting Woo into the Hollyweird canon. However, there are arguably no Hollywood action films made since HARD BOILED that are its equal – or, arguably, even worthy of licking its cinematic boots. And that includes Woo’s Hollywood productions.

Most frustratingly, however, is the fact that such a significant and rewarding film, which has a strong fanbase, has never had a home video release that isn’t in one way or another deeply compromised.

FILM DIARY: Fury (Johnny Wang, 1988)

FURY is a solid enough retread of certain elements of the plot in John Woo’s A BETTER TOMORROW, with Michael Wong, Waise Lee and Philip Chan – plus a busload of recognisable faces in the secondary cast. It clunks along here and there, but there’s some moody, noir-ish photography (all glistening city streets and neon), accompanied on the soundtrack by some equally moody jazz. I watched this with the Cantonese language track but it seems that Michael Wong looks to have been speaking English on set and is dubbed on the Cantonese track by another actor. Waise Lee is very good in his role as a man burdened with guilt after he double crosses his friends (Wong and Chan) with his cousin – only to discover his cousin is utterly homicidal.

The plot is nothing groundbreaking but there’s some phenomenal action, particularly towards the end of the picture. The close quarters combat is frustratingly overcranked, presumably in an attempt to make it appear more hectic, in a manner that one might associate with the early James Bond pictures; but the gunplay and pyrotechnics play out in glorious Peckinpah/Woo-esque slow motion. Not a bad little picture.

I watched this via the Fortune Star Legendary Collection DVD, which is fine though the print’s in a rough shape.

FILM DIARY: Blue Jean Monster (Ivan Lam, 1988)

I’d not seen this in an age and had forgotten most of it. Big riffs on ROBOCOP and THE TERMINATOR mixed with some bawdy comedy: Shing Fui-On tests his signs of life, realising he’s come back from the dead, by looking at a jazz magazine that he casually keeps on the bedside cabinet in the bedroom he shares with his pregnant wife (WTF?) than admonishing his penis to ‘get up’ (double WTF?). Then he shocks himself into life by miswiring the electric iron, before the parasitic hoodlum who lives with him (much to the chagrin of Shing’s wife) because Shing saved his life comes in and tries to pull the iron from Shing’s chest; the pair end up tumbling to the floor, and Shing’s wife walks in to see the hoodlum’s buttocks thrusting whilst he yells ‘You excite me’. She naturally jumps to the conclusion that her husband is having a sexual relationship with the hoodlum boarding at their house.

This is riotous fun. I think I’m going to have to put this one in for more frequent rotation in my player.

FILM DIARY: Point of No Return (aka, Touch and Go) (Ringo Lam, 1991)

This is a darker than usual film for Sammo Hung, who plays a wide-eyed innocent, street cook Fat Goose, who gets caught up in street level violence when he witnesses a policeman being murdered by a group of thugs. However, the street hoods are in the employ of a much more wealthy group of criminals who are involved in sex trafficking, abducting young women from mainland China and forcing them into prostitution in brothels – the most regular patrons of which seem to be city officials and high ranking members of the police force. Sammo teams up, largely through accident, with Wan Yeung-Ming, who plays Pitt, the partner of the murdered detective. Sammo also attempts to court Wan’s sister, played by Teresa Mo. The head of the street hoods is played with sinister precision by Tommy Wong.

There’s some humour (Fat Goose persuades his mother that Teresa Mo is his girlfriend, and ‘Goose Mom’ – as she’s called in the subs – makes Mo go through a series of exercises designed to assess whether she would be capable of multiple childbirth), though it’s buried in some bone-crunching violence and a near-persistent sense of threat. Not top-tier Ringo Lam (ie, not on a par with CITY ON FIRE, etc) but certainly a good representation of his middle-tier work.

FILM DIARY: No Compromise (Billy Chan, 1988)

This is a typical vehicle for Danny ‘The Man Who Play Cops’ Lee, who in this picture is a detective (natch) hunting a Bonnie and Clyde-style pair of criminals from mainland China. Only the female suspect (Wong Siu-Fong) is pregnant, and her husband (Lam Wai) bears a grudge because Lee shot her in the arm – causing a gangrenous(?) infection. The police pursuit is played against the deterioration of workaholic Lee’s marriage, his wife criticising the hours he spends away from the family, and Lee attempting to rebuild his relationship with his young son, Kee.

These two narrative strands come together in the film’s climax, in which Kee is taken captive by the male suspect.

This is a good ‘un with some brutal violence, most of it gun-based. There are also one or two extraordinary stunts, including near the beginning of the picture a stuntman leaping approximately 20 feet from a tall building into a tree, allowing only this to break his fall to the ground.

It’s a moody film – more film noir than action-er. The film’s last half hour, set largely in a hospital at night, is lit in a very low-key way, and on the DVD copy I watched (the Legendary Collection disc) these sequences were very hard to make out.