Karl Maka Capsule Reviews

Karl Maka Capsule Reviews

Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog (Karl Maka, 1978) — July 21, 2017

The first of only two movies released by Gar Bo Films, the production company started by Sammo Hung and Lau Kar-wing. The company collapsed when several of its key collaborators left to form Cinema City and dominate 1980s Hong Kong filmmaking, including Karl Maka, who directed this one, and Dean Shek, who plays one of the villains (key Cinema City figure Eric Tsang co-wrote the script with Maka as well).

The other Gar Bo film, Odd Couple, is vastly better, possibly because of Lau’s direction but mostly because it’s about these incredible stunt performers first and foremost, with the goofy slapstick only an added bonus. Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog is just a Karl Maka movie with the occasional fight scene thrown in, but even those are unsatisfactory for reasons that have nothing to do with the performers: they’re too brief, they’re indifferently shot and edited, with no visual flair or sense of style (during one of Lau’s big fights, for example, he’s wearing the same basic color as his opponent, so their movements blend together into a vague gray blur rather than the distinctive swirls of clashing color that so both look cool and allow the audience to differentiate the various impossible movements of the actors.

In the late 70s-80s period, Sammo basically had two star personas. In the early films he usually plays a cocky, amoral scoundrel who’s a bit dim. Around the time of Winners and Sinners, he starts playing surprisingly badass sad sacks. This is one of the least appealing versions of the former persona, neither he nor Lau are the least bit likable (unlike their charming squabbling in Odd Couple).

Odd Couple (Lau Kar-wing, 1979) — July 20, 2017

Going from Sammo Hung’s early 70s supporting work in something like The Skyhawk to this, made only a few years later, is a trip. No longer held back by co-stars who can’t keep up or unimaginative casting that refuses see him as a lead, the full Sammo is unleashed in the late 70s, first in his own films, then working with like-minded collaborators. Here it’s under the direction of Lau Kar-leung’s younger brother, Lau Kar-wing, who forms with Sammo the eponymous pair, masters of sword and spear who have been dueling annually for 15 years but whose fights always end in a draw. As they’re getting old, they resolve to each train an apprentice and have the two younger men fight. Sammo’s apprentice is played by Lau, and Lau’s apprentice is played by Sammo. Along the way to the showdown they torment Karl Maka and Dean Shek (and with Raymond Wong writing the script and Maka also producing, this is like a test run for Cinema City, though it was produced under Lau and Hung’s joint venture Gar Bo Films). The fun turns deadly in the final third, when Beardy (Bryan Leung, the perfect foil for both these guys) shows up for some revenge and ends up fighting all four of them (but only two at a time, because science).

Enough cannot be said about the stunt work in this film. Sammo and Lau are at their absolute peak and the coordination and the speed of the fights (notably aided at times by undercranking) rivals anything I’ve ever seen. In many respects it’s just a termite variation on Lau Kar-leung’s Dirty Ho, released five days earlier in August of 1979, swapping ornate Shaws’ sets and costumes and real actors and story for the gutter humor and mind-bending athleticism of the stunt crew. By which I mean it’s one of the best kung fu films ever.

Laughing Times (John Woo, 1980) — August 15, 2015

In which Dean Shek as Charlie Chaplin farts on a chicken.

It’s actually pretty fun, with the desperate reality of life in Hong Kong’s slums underlying it all, but if this was the kind of film John Woo was reduced to making in the early 80s, it’s no wonder he took to drink. There isn’t even a little bit of him in it.

All the Wrong Clues (…For the Right Solution) (Tsui Hark, 1981) — November 27, 2013

Cartoonish parody of film noir from Tsui Hark and Cinema City. It was Tsui’s first hit after his dark and experimental first three films and, somewhat surprisingly, the film was nominated for a bunch of Golden Horse awards, winning for Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography. George Lam plays a private eye who is the target for revenge of master criminal Ah-Capone, played by Karl Maka, and his №1 Killer Popeye, played by Eric Tsang. Helping Lam stay alive is the police Chief Inspector, Teddy Robin (actor, director, rock star). While the villains ham it up (Tsang in particular does a credible Tasmanian Devil), Lam’s calm focus almost keeps the film grounded. A scene where he and Robin reminisce on New Year’s Eve about the old days over cold milk at a local bar is even kind of touching, until the world explodes into farcical chaos. Maybe my perception of Lam is colored by having seen his in a brilliant performance the next year in Ann Hui’s Boat People.

Watch for Cantopop pioneer Tang Kee-chan, who plays the elderly conman and also appears running a snack bar and leading the beachside sing-along finale in Happy Ghost II.

Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon (Lau Kar-wing, 1990) — July 21, 2017

The key figures of Gar Bo Films reunite for a cop movie, with Lau Kar-wing directing Sammo Hung and Karl Maka. Maka’s playing a variation on his Aces Go Places persona, a greedy and horny but ultimately honest and competent cop while Sammo plays his sad sack badass character, mopey and shy with women but capable of beating up everyone in sight. Lau himself plays the villain, hiding behind suit and spectacles for most of the film. The movie’s an indifferent mix of Cinema City tropes: vehicle stunts, woman ogling, gay/trans panic, slapstick humor, police vigilantism. It was apparently called Tiger on the Beat 3 for awhile, but it isn’t as good as either of those movies. Sammo comes off the best, dusting off his surprisingly good Bruce Lee impression for most of the fights (though there’s also a callback to a famous Michael Hui sequence).