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Mercenaries From Hong Kong (1982) March 29, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Action, War, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Wong Jing  Cast: Ti Lung; Chan Wai-Man; Chan Pak-Cheung; Lo Leih; Johnny Wang; Wong Yu  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

A businessman’s daughter contacts mercenary-for-hire Luo Li (Ti Lung) to avenge her father’s murder by an assassin who has fled to Cambodia.  Luo assembles his crack team for the journey into war-torn Cambodia: a knife expert, a deadly sniper, a bare-fist fighting expert, a thief and a bomb specialist and heads into the danger zone.  But once there, their plan alters when it becomes evident that things aren’t as straightforward as they seem…

Mercenaries From Hong Kong opens with a shot of Ti Lung pumping iron to an anonymous instrumental band’s rendition of Blue Oyster Cult’s Teen Archer, and you immediately know this isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill Shaw Brothers Kung Fu flick.  Indeed, if it wasn’t for the use of so many Shaw players, you may be forgiven for thinking you were watching a Golden Harvest film.  For a company that never really moved with the times, Mercenaries From Hong Kong looks amazingly “contemporary” for a late-period Shaw flick, and unlike virtually all other productions from the era, hardly any of it is shot on a claustrophobic sound stage, and outdoor sets and locations are used extensively.

Wheeling about on office chairs at high speeds has its risks. 

The story is hardly original, and pretty much rips off every war movie where an ensemble cast goes off behind enemy lines.  Small band of commandoes against insurmountable odds?  Check.  Soldier hoping to pay for life-saving operation for sick daughter?  Check.  Two members of team hating each other’s guts until their backs are against the wall?  Check.  Backstabbing traitor masquerading as everyone’s friend?  Big fat check.  And when one of the team asks Luo to look after his child “in case anything happens to me”, you just know he isn’t going to make it.  You might as well just shoot him in the face there and then, get it over with and recalculate everyone’s paycheck.  Especially when he stupidly forgets his lucky necklace before engaging the enemy. 

The team hears one too many jokes about their matching outfits. 

As well as the hackneyed plot devices and clichés, the direction isn’t terribly good.  Wong Jing became infamous for his screwball comedies and exploitation movies, and both genres impose on Mercenaries From Hong Kong to a certain degree.  We have a scene of Ti Lung being The Exterminator, while the inclusion of Nat Chan Pak-Cheung brings a little too much light relief for my taste.  In fact, humour crops up a number of times and it just impedes the film’s progress and atmosphere.

'It's OK - there are six of us so this isn't 7-MAN ARMY' 

However, one thing can’t be denied: Mercenaries From Hong Kong is extremely good fun despite (or maybe because of) its cornier elements.  There’s a mass brawl in a shopping centre that is really exciting to watch, and features dozens of improvised weapon-wielding stuntmen and extras.  The action scenes in general are another aspect that looks decidedly un-Shaw-like and again look more like they came from Golden Harvest’s fight choreographers.  The cast includes some of Shaw’s top players as well as their perennial action-man Ti Lung, and it’s fantastic seeing Johnny Wang and Lo Leih given good-guy roles for a change.  Immortal bad guys Lei Hoi-Sang and Yuen Wah also turn up to add some weight to the heavies on the other side.

It’s surprising (and a little disappointing) how little of this film is actually set in the jungles of Cambodia, as primarily the action takes place in and around Hong Kong, but Mercenaries From Hong Kong probably exceeded its remit by coming up with a film that still entertains some 26 years after it was made.

Ebola Syndrome (1996) March 24, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Exploitation , 5 comments

Director: Herman Yau  Cast: Anthony Wong; Angel Wong; Lo Meng; Vincent Wan  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Jing’s Production Ltd

There’s a good chance that the Ebola virus will wipe out humanity at some point.  It’s highly contagious, incurable and has a ridiculously high mortality rate.  Which makes for potentially shocking and inevitably sensationalistic movie material.  If the virus does break out on a large scale, though, it’s unlikely we will see the events of Herman Yau’s cult exploitation movie Ebola Syndrome played out for real.  At least, I hope not…

Anthony Wong plays Kai, a psychotic rapist and murderer from Hong Kong, who flees the police to make a new life for himself in South Africa working in a Chinese restaurant.  His boss (former Venom Lo Meng) has trouble finding merchants to sell him meat, so he does a deal with a local tribe suffering from an outbreak of the Ebola virus to seel him cheap pork.  Kai comes into contact with the virus when he casually rapes an infected tribeswoman and becomes a carrier for the disease, which he starts to spread – at first unwittingly, and then deliberately.

Ebola Syndrome is sleazy as hell and pretty much unforgivable on any level.  There’s always something nasty being done to someone or something either living or dead (there’s a shot of a dead mouse getting run over which is particularly gratuitous and pointless, and do we really need to see Wong slice up three frogs in one prolonged shot?).  All of the characters are inherently unlikeable – even Kai’s boss (the most “normal” of the bunch) only hires him because he’ll work for low wages as he’s a wanted criminal.  Oh, and let’s not forget Lily (Angel Wong), who very nearly became one of Kai’s victims in Hong Kong and who accidentally stumbles on him again in South Africa.  She can’t be near him without vomiting as she claims she can “really recognise his scent of smell”.  Yeah, all right…

No one is safe from Ah Kim 

With such a crew of amoral and unsympathetic characters, there is little drama.  There is, however, what appears like an attempt at gross-out humour throughout the film (Wong Jing is the producer, after all) which, if you like that sort of thing, might raise a few laughs.  And fans of Yau and Wong’s previous collaboration The Untold Story are treated to another “human flesh served to restaurant patrons” subplot. 

It has to be said that the depiction of the symptoms of the virus are fanciful at best and don’t seem to bear much resemblance to the real thing.  The sufferers have a tendency to be right as rain one minute then suddenly fall to the ground in spasms, making for some unintentional hilarity.  Later on in the movie things are taken in a more serious direction with the introduction of Sergeant Yeung (Vincent Wan) and his team as they try to track down Kim and evade the virus, and the focus shifts away from Kim for a while.

I can see why Ebola Syndrome has such a cult following, with its gross comedy, gore and so forth, but there is just too much nastiness in there that just put me off – and animal violence in movies is a complete taboo for me (live chickens are killed on screen).  I understand that the current Hong Kong version is as uncut as it’s likely to be, but it is clear that some scenes have been trimmed for violent content and the part where Kim slices off a woman’s tongue is quite obviously cut.  If a fully uncut version becomes available, I think I’ll pass…

Forbidden City Cop (1996) March 10, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, 1990s films , 6 comments

Director: Stephen Chow; Vincent Kok  Cast: Stephen Chow; Carina Lau; Law Kar-Ying; Carman Lee  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Wins/Samico Films

The Emperor is guarded by an elite group of heroes known as the Forbidden City Cops.  The title is hereditary, so when hapless Ling Ling Fat (Chow) also qualifies to be a guard, he is kept out of the way with menial tasks.   One day, the heroes are killed by a group of martial arts masters who are out to kill the Emperor, and only Ling Ling Fat remains.  He has no martial arts skill, but he alone must protect the Emperor against his enemies, and find him a beautiful new concubine.

First impressions of Forbidden City Cop indicate that Chow was recycling some of his gags – the opening titles are a rehash of the Maurice Binder spoofery from From Beijing With Love, and Chow’s character’s name is a pun on the Cantonese for “007”.  However, the similarities more or less end there.  Forbidden City Cop is a pretty funny film, it has to be said, and it is more a parody of the period Wuxia films of the 70’s and early 80’s than another James Bond send-up.  In fact, the Wuxia elements are surprisingly inventive and convincing, and if you were to walk in on this film at certain points, you would be forgiven in thinking you were watching the real thing.

Well, answer the question!

The character of Ling Ling Fat is introduced (after a pre-title sequence where he breaks up a duel between two legendary swordsmen) in typical Chow style.  The Forbidden City Cops display their immense martial arts skill in front of the Emperor one by one, and then Chow comes running out, crouches down and does a couple of extremely lame forward rolls.  It’s hilariously naff, and gets the viewer onside for the rest of the film.  He’s a frustrated inventor who comes up with lots of ingenious (but ultimately pointless) gadgets as well as a bored and inept gynaecologist – a job he is given to keep him away from the Emperor’s palace for as long as possible.

Chow’s character is a little different from usual in this film, and unusually for a film that has rom-com aspirations, the two lovers are married even before the film begins and are blissfully happy.  Carina Lau is Chow’s wife and sparring partner, and does a decent enough job of it.  Chow regular Law Kar-Ying is featured heavily and is his usual crazed self, although he does seem to be unable to keep a straight face at times.  What seems like a sub-plot is introduced about halfway through the film where Chow is sent to woo a concubine on behalf of the Emperor.  This actually has more of a bearing on the plot than you would realise (for what that’s worth) and introduces Carman (sic) Lee’s concubine character – whose encounters with Chow create much of the humour for the second half.

I couldn't have put it better myself. 

Like a lot of Chow’s films, the tone is somewhat uneven, but this can be overlooked in Forbidden City Cop as the changes are never as jarring as in, say, From Beijing With Love or King of Beggars.  As with all of Chow’s films, though, a strong knowledge of the language is necessary to get the most out of the mo lei tau (makes no sense) dialogue and Cantonese wordplay.  However, even without such knowledge, the film’s a hoot and most of the sight gags are universal, making this one of Chow’s more accessible films of the ‘nineties.

The version on review here is one of the old Mei-Ah straight-from-VCD travesties that they were so keen on producing (maybe they thought DVD wouldn’t take off?).  It’s rubbish on all fronts and has the old burnt-in subtitles, but there are a load of howlers that mangle the English language to within an inch of its life.  I’ve included a screenshot of a couple of the best ones, but there are quite a few in this version of the film.  I’m getting the remaster before I watch it again!

From Beijing With Love (1994) March 2, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, 1990s films , 2 comments

Director: Lee Lik-Chi; Stephen Chow Sing-Chi  Cast: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi; Anita Yuen; Law Kar-Ying  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Win’s Movie Production

A dinosaur’s skull is stolen and retired spy Ling Ling Chat (Stephen Chow), now a pork vendor, is brought in to investigate.  He is aided by Li Heung Kam (Anita Yuen) in finding the “Man with the Golden Gun”, the villain behind the theft.  But Li has orders of her own, and must ensure that Chat fails in his mission…

From Beijing With Love starts off as a straight parody of the James Bond movies, complete with a Maurice Binder-esque opening sequence and title music that’s so close to the original that it’s quite surprising that EON Productions never sued.  Furthermore, Chow’s character is called Ling Ling Chat (which literally translates as “Zero Zero Seven”) and includes a gadget-introduction sequence that at times looks like the real thing.

I still prefer him to Daniel Craig.

The gags range from fairly awful (Law Kar-Ying, as an insane “Q” character, demonstrates a solar-powered torch) to the hilarious (I loved Chow’s cockroach infested motel room and his “landlady”), but come thick and fast for most of the film.  However, there are some extremely jarring changes of tone from the comic to the serious that From Beijing With Love is sometimes quite uncomfortable viewing.  One scene in particular, where a father is repeatedly shot in front of his young son in a shopping mall, is tough to stomach in a film which is supposedly a screwball comedy.  The juxtaposition of comic and violent scenes are probably enough to turn off a lot of potential viewers off this film and in this way, it can be seen to be not untypical of Hong Kong movies as a whole.

Nevertheless, consistency aside, there are just about enough funny moments in From Beijing With Love to make it memorable for the right reasons.  There are some great jokes and funny scenes in here, and the humour is typical of Chow’s work from the period.  One scene is memorable: Chow is wounded in a gunfight and is dragged back to his flat where Yuen is forced to pull the bullet out of his leg.  To kill the pain, Chow puts a videotape of a porno film on while Yuen chips away with a screwdriver and hammer.  It’s sick, disturbing and gory, but it’s also pretty funny.  The use of the word “darkie” in the scene referring to one of the porn actresses raises an eyebrow, but this is just down to bad subtitling (which have been ported directly from the old VHS version); Chow actually just says “black person”.

Don't try this at home.

At around 84 minutes in length, From Beijing With Love is the kind of movie that’s quick and undemanding.  It’s a definite no-brainer with less plot than usual for a Chow vehicle from the mid-nineties, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  If you can stomach the violence and the sudden changes in tone, it’s quite harmless and should elicit a few belly laughs.

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