Aces Go Places IV: You Never Die Twice (1986) — December 11, 2013
Sylvia Chang, who’s mostly been wasted in this series since halfway through the first entry, absolutely broke my heart at the end of this one, when it looks as though Karl Maka’s Baldy has died. That Maka died as the result of a hypnotic experiment fueled by a prism that the guy with the burnt hand from Raiders of the Lost Ark had stolen from Baldy and Sam Hui after a series of car chases through New Zealand (and a certainly more than is reasonable amount of stunts involving a preschool child) that turned him into an insane rampaging hulk leading to him accidentally electrocute himself with leftover props from Universal’s Frankenstein set, made no difference to my addled mind. Chang’s stillness, in a film series that never stops moving, never stops talking, is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.
Ringo Lam directed this one, and he brings back the crazy vehicle stunts that worked so well in the second entry, with almost none of the gadgetry or special effects that Tsui Hark shoehorned into the third. And it's not just car chases, but a wild ride in a small airplane for Sam and Sally Yeh too. But it’s that mixing of tones, leavening the series’ typical farce with tragedy, that distinguished this one.
That, and the fact that the HK police play Interpol in a hockey match and the coaches are Kwan Tak-hing and Shih Kien, star and primary villain of a zillion of so Wong Fei-hung films in the 50s and 60s.
Also: this film is the source of one of the big subtitle flubs David Bordwell cites in Planet Hong Kong, when the Raiders guy gives the Nazi salute, the sub reads “Hi Hitler!”
City on Fire (1987) — February 21, 2013
Reservoir Dogs comparisons are, at this point, unavoidable. But Tarantino’s film, rather than simply being a rip-off, actually complements the original quite nicely, expanding the stand-off climax of Lam’s film while using flashbacks to fill in the back story that gets a bit laborious in City on Fire (especially anything to do with Chow Yun-fat’s undercover cop’s love interest). Lam tells the story front to back, Tarantino (more or less) back to front and the two films meet at the heist, brilliantly staged by Lam: the violence erupts in the midst of a crowded Hong Kong street at night, as opposed to Tarantino’s vacant, wide-open Los Angeles.
Added November 24, 2016:
From the wailing of Teddy Robin’s sax to the blues and neon reds of a Hong Kong where all the jewelry stores are open 24 hours to Chow Yun-fat looking impossibly cool wearing two button-down shirts, one on top of the other, collar popped like a superstar, City on Fire is everything. A Better Tomorrow opened the door, but Ringo Lam codified the ethos and the aesthetic of Heroic Bloodshed, twisting Woo’s tale of brotherly tragedy into wrenching, grotesque assaults on a degenerating state and social order in the interregnum between the Joint Declaration and the Handover. Lam is the most tactile director of his generation: his gunfights inflict horrifying physical consequences, not elegant ballets of bullets and bodies but unexpected eruptions of blood and gore, nightmarish expressions of uncontrollable fear and passion. His montages don’t dissolve to the rhythm of gorgeous pop melodies, they burrow into the streets of a chaotic city, handheld and smash-cutting, scored by the primal growls of Cantonese rock n’ roll.
This was the first feature Lam was allowed to make on his own terms. Working at Cinema City, he’d directed three romantic comedies and one of the Aces Go Places films, and possibly parts of Happy Ghost III with Johnnie To. The success of Aces Go Places IV gave him the chance, and he ran with it, with both City on Fire and Prison on Fire released to acclaim in 1987. School on Fire came the next year. Sky on Fire comes out next week.
School on Fire (1988) — November 26, 2016
The Hong Kong New Wave pulp-exploitation version of A Brighter Summer Day. Unlike Dangerous Encounters-First Kind and The Happenings, with which it shares a ground-level, ultra-violent aesthetic in examining the lives of doomed HK teens, its anger isn’t a generalized generational explosion of angst, but rather an anguished indictment of the specific institutions which, through systemic incompetence, corruption, and/or impotence have utterly failed to offer the youth of the colony’s Walled City-like slums any hope of escape, of a future outside of drug abuse, prostitution, street crime and gang violence. Even the Triads are a failed institution: their norms and rituals of respectability overthrown by Roy Cheung in a career-best performance as the archetype of the new nihilism in gangster ideology.
Wild Search (1989) — November 25, 2016
Ringo Lam’s remake of Witness, which goes to show that if you take the Maurice Jarre score and the voyeuristic ethnography out of that film all you’re left with is an overboiled crime melodrama. Chow Yun-fat and Cherie Chung can’t help but be a warmer pair than the ice cold Ford/McGillis couple, but it’s mostly just because of the echoes of other, better movies like An Autumn’s Tale, Once a Thief, or The Eighth Happiness. It’s got some nice car chases though, and Roy Cheung is at his least charming and most menacing as the villain.
Touch and Go (1991) — November 26, 2016
Sammo Hung witnesses a cop-killing and becomes the target of the gang of bad guys, led by Tommy Wong Kwong-leung as the aptly named “God of Hell”. Many fat jokes, limp buddy comedy routines, and Sammo’s desperate romantic subplots fill-in the vast spaces between excellent action sequences. It’s basically 48 Hours, with Sammo in the Eddie Murphy role. His character’s name is “Fat Goose”.
Prison on Fire II (1991) — November 29, 2016
Solid variation on the first, more or less unrelated, Ringo Lam prison movie, with elements of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest thrown in for good measure. It’s lighter in tone that the other “On Fire” movies, and even ends on a moment of hope. That is, until Roy Cheung’s cameo at the end, which implies that this universe is circular and that poor Chow Yun-fat will never escape this cycle of torment and torture at the hands of the all-powerful and arbitrarily unjust system.
Twin Dragons (1992) — April 14, 2015
More interesting at the margins than the center, with a who’s who series of cameos ingeniously painting a portrait of Hong Kong cinema as it was in the early 1990s. An example: Lau Kar-leung plays a calm and rational doctor, trying to save a man’s life, when Wong Jing bursts in as a “Supernatural Doctor”, shouts a bunch of nonsense, and trashes the guy’s room. Lau dispatches the quack with a strong punch to the stomach, demonstrating the power and authority of Lau’s intellectual, focused cinema over the inane chaos of Wong. (By the way: this scene is cut out of the American release of the film, because Weinsteins.) Another: the final fight scene is set in a Mitsubishi factory, the only occupants of which are the film’s directors (Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam) and Ng See-yuen, the film’s producer. The three of them are playing cards and take every opportunity they get to cheat and look at each other’s hands, even as the scene around them descends into violence, their primary concern is with topping each other. A third: the love interests of the two Jackie Chans are played by Maggie Cheung and Nina Li Chi. Cheung at this point was well on her way to the international art house, having abandoned the girlfriend roles she perfected in Chan’s Police Story movies and here she falls for the intellectual Chan. Li, playing the daughter of wealthy businessman (veteran director Chor Yuen) falls for the other Chan, the kung fu expert, while in reality she was about to quit the film industry to become an investor and was dating and later married Jet Li.
It’s tempting to read the story in more general terms as well, with Jackie Chan’s twins (one a concert pianist and conductor — he does not play the violin, despite the Miramax DVD cover, which also has the wrong version of Chan as the musician) representing the disparate yearnings of the Hong Kong cinema, between populist entertainment and intellectual meaning. Problem is: Chan doesn’t appear to have ever had any highbrow desires (indeed his performance as the aesthete is wholly unconvincing: “Jackie Chan’s Stardust Memories” this is not) and Tsui Hark never once in his career has recognized a dichotomy between art and entertainment. Indeed, he’s spent his professional life fusing the two.
Chan reportedly hired Tsui because he expected him to be good at special effects (Lam handled the fight scenes) and wasn’t happy with the end-product (I thought they were fine, but I have pretty low standards for such things). Between that and Chan’s famous disputes with Lau Kar-leung on the set of Drunken Master II, I have to question Chan’s state of mind and sense of his own artistic limitations in the early 1990s. Also an indicator of hubristic egotism: thinking he can get away with that ponytail.
Full Contact (1992) — August 18, 2013
Chow Yun-fat is a badass, vest-wearing bouncer in Bangkok who, thanks to his dweebish and weak-willed buddy Anthony Wong, gets caught up with a gang of nymphomaniac bank robbers led by a flamboyant, psychotic, magic trick-doing Simon Yam. Here we have the splattery nihilism of the Heroic Bloodshed genre in all its sleazy glory.
Added January 27, 2018:
There has to be a classic noir that has this exact plot, but I can’t place it. A man does a heist job to help out a friend, but they get betrayed and the man is presumed dead while the friend joins the betrayers, going so far as to steal his friend’s wife. But the man comes back from the dead to exact justice on all those who wronged him.
It’s just Point Blank, probably, but I’m thinking also of something older. This Gun for Hire? Maybe it’s just that this is Chow Yun-fat’s most Mitchum-esque performance, but I even get Out of the Past vibes, though as far as I know Robert Mitchum never wore a leather vest and fake fingers.
Glad Ringo Lam gave Simon Yam the opportunity to revive his flamboyant magician psycho in Looking for Mr. Perfect.
Chow Yun-fat and Anthony Wong made this, Hard-Boiled, and the Mabel Cheung/Alex Law comedy Now You See Love, Now You Don’t all in the same year.
Burning Paradise in Hell (1994) — November 22, 2016
Often called simply Burning Paradise, the full title captures my feelings on the present moment quite well.
This film from Ringo Lam, produced by Tsui Hark, is another in the Shaolin History series. Beginning with the burning of the Temple by Manchu forces, it follows young Fong Sai-yuk as he and one of his elders make their escape. They’re captured by a renegade band of Manchu and taken to the Red Lotus Temple, an underground complex packed with deadly traps lorded over by a homicidal maniac (shades of the demonic netherworlds of Painted Skin, Executioners, and The Bride with White Hair). There several Shaolin refugees are imprisoned, including Hong Hsi-kuan (who teamed with Fong Sai-yuk in Chang Cheh’s Heroes Two). Building on the gory excesses of Lam’s Full Contact, and pointing the way toward the apocalyptic wuxia of Tsui’s The Blade, the film is nevertheless peppered with dopey puns and physical comedy of the kind that would have been considered too lowbrow for Corey Yuen’s Fong Sai-yuk movies. And while star Willie Chi lacks Jet Li’s charm and grace as Fong (as he will again playing Wong Fei-hung in Lau Kar-leung’s Drunken Master III), Wong Kam-kong is impressively demented as the villain.
The Red Lotus Temple of course is the site of what is considered the first ever wuxia film, a 16 part serial produced from 1928–1931 which is now lost. It was also the subject with which Shaw Brothers moved from focusing on musicals to action films in 1965. Fitting that it would re-appear here in the last days before the Handover, in the hands of Hong Kong’s most visceral doomsayer.
The Adventurers (1995) — November 29, 2016
A weird mess of a film, with Andy Lau as a Cambodian who works with David Chiang and the CIA to take over a San Francisco Tong in order to get close to the gang leader/international arms smuggler/ex-CIA agent who murdered his family 20 years earlier. Also Andy marries his arch-enemy’s daughter and has a weird romance with an unhinged Rosamund Kwan. The plot skips around like a scratched record and even the action scenes are lackluster, all explosion no art. Even the car chase, usually a Ringo Lam specialty, is just bizarre: at the climactic moment, Andy flips the bad guys car over and goes careening off the road—except we don’t see Andy’s car crash, we just cut to it a couple minutes later in a smoking wreck at the bottom of a steep hill. Like the camera wasn’t rolling during the stunt or something.
Maximum Risk (1996) – January 4, 2019
Would love to see Lam's original version, where Natasha Hentsridge's character is possibly a villain, in on the plan to kill JCVD #1 I assume. But test screenings apparently inspired the studio to force him to remake the entire relationship into something much more simple.
Still, as Hong Kong director in Hollywood projects go, it's pretty solid.
Full Alert (1997) — July 23, 2014
Ringo Lam does a Milkyway-style film right as Milkyway launches, with Lau Ching-wan as the head cop on a team tracking down a small gang of killers and robbers (see also: Expect the Unexpected, Breaking News, Drug War). There’s a car chase, a tense standoff, and a neatly constructed final heist sequence, but the most disturbing scene is a POV shot of an empty apartment, a child crying behind a door.
It’s not built around a strong relationship like Lam’s best films (City on Fire and Prison on Fire) but much more grounded than the gloriously ludicrous Full Contact. Both cop and crook are haunted by deaths they’ve committed or witnessed, and the film is suffused with the same apocalyptic (read: Handover) tone as the early Milkyway cycle. Films where men of violence can’t escape the world they’ve made and are eventually consumed by it.
Added January 4, 2019:
A lot of people tried to make the The End of Hong Kong movie. The heroic bloodshed film for the handover to bookend year of the Joint Declaration’s Long Arm of the Law. But only Ringo Lam actually did it.
Sure the genre, and Hong Kong, goes on. But everything that follows, your Johnnie Tos and Andrew Laus and so on, is different. Less immediate, less solid. A level removed from what was. Films about films or ideas or ideas of films.
The tragedy of Full Alert is that everyone, cop Lau Ching-wan and robbers Francis Ng and Jack Kao, desperately wants out, but they know there’s no escape. Or rather, there’s no way to get out whole. In Long Arm, the Mainlanders with a dream of ill-gotten riches to be found in the capitalist paradise are eaten alive by the city, swallowed by the depths of the Walled City. In Full Alert, escape might be possible, but people always choose to tear each other apart instead.
The Suspect (1998) — November 28, 2016
Ringo Lam heads to the Philippines, where Louis Koo, on his first day out of prison, is given a rocket launcher and told to assassinate a presidential candidate. He doesn’t, but his best friend does, and soon the cops, a paramilitary organization, the best friend and their childhood boss, Simon Yam, are all trying to kill poor Louis. Some decent tense sequences and Lam’s typically impressive vehicle stunts aside, there isn’t much here. Koo had yet to develop much of an on-screen presence and this is maybe the most subdued (boring) Yam performance ever. And even still his absence from the vast majority of the film is deeply felt.
The Victim (1999) — November 27, 2016
Unexceptional mystery enlivened by strong performances from The Other Tony Leung and Lau Ching-wan, with supernatural elements made all the more creepy by Ringo Lam’s attention to texture and physical detail.
Replicant (2001) – January 4, 2019
This is a Buster Keaton movie.
Looking for Mr. Perfect (2003) — November 23, 2016
Probably the slightest thing Milkyway Image has ever produced, Ringo Lam directs an action romcom starring Shu Qi as a Hong Kong cop who goes to Malaysia on vacation and winds up entangled in an espionage plot involving hunky Andy On, lascivious Lam Suet, Chapman To looking weirdly like Garry Shandling and lurching around like a refugee from a 70s sitcom, and Simon Yam delivering the Yammiest performance I think I’ve ever scene. He wears a pink suit, he wears a purple suit. He tap dances. He communicates largely by snapping his fingers. He and Ruby Wong fight Andy On with fruit. But not durians. That wouldn’t be fair.
This is the movie Sophie’s Revenge wished it could have been. Which is some kind of accomplishment, I guess.