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The Dead and the Deadly (1983) January 30, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Comedy, Supernatural, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Wu Ma  Cast: Sammo Hung; Wu Ma; Lam Ching-Ying; Cherie Chung  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Golden Harvest

A funeral director’s assistant (Sammo Hung) becomes convinced that his recently deceased friend Lu Cho (Wu Ma) has been murdered and takes steps to prove it.  However, it turns out that Lu Cho, along with his accomplices, is faking his death in order to get his hands on a fortune.  When Sammo starts getting too suspicious, Lu Cho “appears” to Sammo as a ghost, insisting that his death was by natural causes so that his friend will stop digging for the truth.  When Lu Cho is then murdered by his co-conspirators, and the real ghost of Lu Cho appears to Sammo telling him this time that he met with foul play, Sammo doesn’t want to know.  So the spirit of the dead man haunts Sammo until he agrees to help him bring the murderers to justice.

What sets Sammo Hung apart from all of his contemporaries is his work in the horror/comedy genre, a little sub-niche that he pretty much made his own and returned to regularly during the eighties and early nineties.  While Jackie Chan was busy being the happy-go-lucky everyman hero, Sammo was messing about with chicken’s blood, body painting and Taoist priests.  This Wu Ma vehicle is one of the odder entries in the genre, but it does have its moments.

The humour in the first hour of the film is extremely lowbrow and juvenile, something I’ve noticed in other Wu Ma films.  There’s a scene where Sammo goes to a brothel and munches on some Qing equivalent of Viagra which is painfully unfunny.  The only plus points are a couple of good gags involving an artificially aged Lam Ching-Ying, who needs others to help him with his dynamic showmanship.  The scene with the apparent corpse of Lu Cho having his gold teeth removed is funny on first viewing but gets a little tired upon repeats.

KISS were huge in Qing dynasty China 

Just when things start getting really desperate, a strange thing happens – The Dead and the Deadly actually becomes quite entertaining.  Things kick off when Lu Cho gets killed for real and starts haunting Sammo in a scene that feels like a dry run for the film that would be its spiritual successor – 1986’s Where’s Officer Tuba?  Things get more frantic when Sammo gets possessed and the robbers are revealed and all manor of spooky goings-on start occurring. 

As with other films in this genre, some knowledge of Chinese folklore is a definite advantage to getting the most out of the film.  Although the special effects are very crude by today’s standard (and even by the west’s standard for 1983, to be honest) enjoyment isn’t hampered too much.  While The Dead and the Deadly isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of spooky comedies, it does have a few neat touches and, taken as a piece of superficial entertainment may give some enjoyment.  Personally, though, I’d say you can’t beat the sublime Encounters of the Spooky Kind and the Sammo Hung produced Mr Vampire.

The Detective (2007) January 19, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, Supernatural, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Oxide Pang  Cast: Aaron Kwok; Liu Kai-Chi; Shing Fui-On  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Sil-Metropol Organization

Tam (Aaron Kwok) is a mediocre detective in the heart of the Chinese community in Thailand.  One day, drinking buddy Lung (Shing Fui-On) turns up to his office and hands him a photograph of a beautiful woman and a wad of cash.  Lung claims the woman is following him and will kill him over a matter that “is nothing to do with me”.  Tam suspects that Lung is using him as an introduction agency and just wants to know where the beauty lives, but then people surrounding the woman start to die.  Most look like suicides, but Tam is sure they are connected and believes foul play is involved.  His friend, police officer Chak (Liu Kai-Chi) indulges Tam for a while, but eventually grows exasperated by his insistence that there’s more to the deaths than meet the eye.

Aaron Kwok

Detective is a decent gumshoe tale told in the gritty, noir-ish style that is so popular in Hong Kong these days.  Aaron Kwok is one of the few pop-stars-turned-actors I can watch, as he does tend to have some ability and doesn’t seem obsessed with looking pretty all the time.  He shares a lot of screen time with Liu Kai-Chi, who is carving a nice career as a character actor, and the two have some very tangible onscreen chemistry.  The film is also helped by the Thai locations, which give it a very different visual feel from the current crop of Hong Kong Noir thrillers.  The supporting cast is excellent throughout (Wayne Lai pops up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role, and Shing Fui-On is creepy as hell as Lung) and the direction is solid.  Unfortunately, the film can also be seen as one big advertisement for a certain brand of telephone/camera manufacturer, but I’ve said my piece on product placement elsewhere here and I’m determined not to repeat myself.

What?  This is a plot device, NOT product placement!

As you have probably gathered, not everything is as it seems and the mystery is fairly compelling.  It does get uncomfortably complicated than is strictly necessary at times, though, and there is a little too much padding to the story for my liking.  But you do want to get to the bottom of it all and the fact that the answers don’t come easily enhances the mystery. 

Detective is not so much a “whodunit” as a “what-did-they-do”, and is definitely worth seeing.  I have a sneaking suspicion that once you’ve been shown all the answers you won’t want to come back to it, but it’s certainly worth the price of a rental.

Where’s Officer Tuba? (1986) January 14, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Supernatural, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Phillip Chan; Ricky Lau  Cast: Sammo Hung; Jacky Cheung; David Chiang, Joey Wong  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: D & B Films

Cowardly cop Tuba (Sammo Hung) is content to play in the police orchestra for a living and leave the real police work to others.  Unfortunately, his unconventional looks and manner make him an ideal candidate for an undercover mission headed by “Rambo” Chow (David Chiang) to bring down an extortion ring.   Chow is promptly killed in action, but not before harassing a promise out of Tuba that he will avenge his death and bring the gang to justice.  Tuba reneges on the promise, which makes Chow’s mischievous spirit manifest itself to Tuba, and the ghost (which only Tuba can see or hear) makes a thorough nuisance of itself until he and his over-ambitious rookie roommate Cheung (Jacky Cheung) swing into action.  Tuba also tries to woo supermarket manager Joanne (Joey Wong), who thinks he’s a pervert, and whose parents think he’s a deranged idiot.

Where’s Officer Tuba? is Hong Kong Cinema’s best-kept secret.  Generally overlooked by Sammo’s fans in favour of more obviously action-packed fare like Eastern Condors or Pedicab Driver, it’s also overlooked by comedy fans put off by the thought of watching a “kung fu” movie.  It is a comedy first and foremost, and despite the inclusion of some awesome action stars from both the 70’s and 80’s (Sammo Hung, Hwang Jang Lee, David Chiang, Yuen Wah and Chang Yi all in the same movie?!) it’s the humour that wins the day.

Police work's a drag - Jacky dresses up.

The film’s greatest strength is the excellent script from the late Barry Wong, who certainly could knock together something simple but enjoyable.  Here, he comes up something that packs more into its 92-minute running time than you can credit on first viewing, and the humour is very well written.  Take the pier scene, for example: Sammo is picked to meet the extortionists and drop off their ransom money.  There follows a string of gags that all hit their target as Sammo deadpans through misunderstandings and knowing references to espionage thrillers.  And this is all before any of the ghostly shenanigans kick off.

It’s surprising that the main event – David Chiang appearing only to Sammo and ruining his life by manipulating his actions and making him look like an idiot – doesn’t really start until about an hour into the movie, but when it does, it’s hilarious.  Sammo refuses to help the ghost of Chow seek revenge, so he runs amok when Sammo visits his prospective parents-in-law.  It’s a scene that should write itself, and it does to a large degree, but even on the umpteenth viewing I still find myself laughing out loud at it.

The climax, where Sammo and Jacky Cheung (in his first movie appearance, I believe) take down the bad guys (this time with the help of Chow’s spirit) is as good as any action movie from the 80’s, and the inclusion of Hwang Jang Lee means there’s some mean legwork on display.  But there’s not enough of it to really make this a contender as an action movie, and it’s the laughs that are the most memorable.

God told me to do it

There are a surprising amount of puns and Cantonese wordplay in this film which obviously don’t translate, but even a passing knowledge of the dialect will be enough for you to get a couple of the more childish jokes.  I wish someone would do a proper release of this film with remastered subtitles as, if memory serves, the subtitles on the Universe DVD are identical to the original VHS “Chinese and English” release and are particularly poor.  Along with the usual spelling mistakes, typos and grammatical problems, there are some strange translations - such as when two characters talk about someone being “successfully raped”, which is just plain odd.  It also helps to have some knowledge of Chinese superstitions, as on first viewing I thought the ending was very Deus Ex Machina, only to find a particular method for dispelling ghosts is all part of Chinese folklore.

Where’s Officer Tuba? was remade in 1990 as Look Out, Officer with Stephen Chow, which seems a mouth-watering prospect but sadly it didn’t realise its potential.  And it has to be mentioned that Where’s Officer Tuba? at times bears an uncanny resemblance to Wu Ma’s The Dead and the Deadly, which also starred Hung as a man possessed by the spirit of a dead man only he can see.  But for my money, Where’s Officer Tuba? is by far the funniest and most enjoyable of Hong Kong’s “invisible man” comedies.

Martial Club (1981) January 1, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Cast: Lau Ka-Fai; Mak Tak-Law; Hui Ying-Hung; Johnny Wang  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

Martial Club opens with a piece to camera by Lau Kar-Leung explaining the etiquette and traditions of the Lion Dance, and then launches into a sequence similar in theme to the previous year’s Jackie Chan feature Young Master.  The Lion Dance shown here differs drastically in execution and both scenes really display the differences between Golden Harvest’s and Shaw Brothers’ house styles, with the latter being very labour-intensive and studio-bound but more intricate and showy.  Another similarity to Young Master comes when another Lion Dance team from a rival school turns up on the scene and shows disrespect.  The school, and its Master, Luk, start to harass Wong Kei-Ying’s school.

Lau Kar-Fai stars as Wong Fei-Hung and portrays him in a similar style to that shown in Yuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Master.  He is friends with Wang Yinlin (Mak Tak-Law) and together they get into various scrapes trying to outdo each other in martial arts displays – often resorting to bribing opponents to lose to show their superiority.  But when a northerner by the name of Shan Xiong (Johnny Wang) shows up into town and is given money by Yinlin’s sister (Hui Ying-Hung) to throw a fight, he misinterprets the situation and beats Yinlin badly, leading to more misunderstandings and friction with the Luk school.

Hui Ying-Hung and Lau Kar-Fai

This is another Lau-Kar-Leung film about martial arts, tradition and politeness.  In a stroke of genius, Johnny Wang, who might as well have the words “bad guy” stencilled across his forehead, is cast as a Master who is on the side of fairness and chivalry, much to the chagrin of Master Luk, who was banking on him to beat Wong’s school so he can claim untimate superiority.  Wang strolls into town from the north speaking no Cantonese and trying to communicate in Mandarin (so bear in mind that the Mandarin audio track on the IVL DVD makes all this very confusing), leading to many mix-ups.

Martial Club, like virtually every other martial arts movie made at this time, has many comic moments, and while the comedy isn’t too bad, it isn’t too great either.  There are a few smiles to be had at the scene where a fight breaks out at a theatre and the Opera stars remain in character while it’s going on.  Hui Ying-Hung is more in the background than other Lau Kar-Leung films of the period, but she moves better in this than in her starring features and is on top form.  In fact, the action sequences can’t be faulted at all, and most of the last hour is a fight-fest leading to the inevitable showdown. 

Johnny Wang enthuses on the benefits of quality footwear 

As is the case with so many Shaw Brothers films, the ending is a travesty and this ending seems more premature than normal.  But Martial Club holds its own with Lau Kar-Leung’s other great works from the period such as Heroes of the East, Dirty Ho, My Young Auntie, et al.

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