Sunday, 29 April 2012

Pointing In The Right Direction: A Look At The Directorial Work of Wang Lung-Wei - Part 1

This is it folks, what you've all been waiting for. My huge three part look at the directorial work of fan favourite Wang Lung-Wei. For those who may not be familiar, Wang Lung-Wei started out as a contract player with the prestigious Shaw Brothers studio. He landed his first major supporting role in Chang Cheh's Shaolin Martial Arts in which he played a monk which specialized in the Iron Stomach technique. From that point on he would appear in dozens of films, many that include such bona fide classics as New Shaolin Boxers, Avenging Eagle, Ten Tigers Of Kwantung and many more. With his no-nonsense approach to acting as well as being extremely committed to performing martial arts, Wang Lung-Wei has risen to become one of the most recognizable faces in Hong Kong Cinema.

With numerous films under his belt, some of which saw him working with the venerable Chang Cheh, Wang thought it was time he applied what he had learned and embarked on a career as a script writer, choreographer and director. While still under contract with Shaw, Wang called in some of his acting buddies as well as a few fresh faces and made his debut as the writer and director of This Man Is Dangerous AKA Shandong Madman released in 1985.

In it we're told the story of two young police officers played by Chin Siu-Ho and Cheung Chin-Pang who are transferred to CID in hopes of furthering their careers within the department. Things don't quite go the way they planned when Chin inadvertently insults one of their superior officers played by Lam Fai-Wong. Deciding to mess with them a little bit he assigns them the task of getting a set of finger prints from a dead body in the morgue. Now this particular sequence had me scratching my head because I've seen enough episodes of CSI to know that the police have whole departments to take care of that. Also when the two hapless cops go down into the morgue the floor is littered with corpses. Why? Had they run out of storage space? or did they just have some of the laziest morgue attendants working there?

Either way we're treated to some grating comedic verbal exchanges as Chin and Cheung argue over who has to get the prints. This scene went on just a little longer then I would have liked and since Wang was the writer it seems he has quite a morbid sense of humour given what we've witnessed through out the scene. From there we move to a scene which sees our moronic leading men given the task of apprehending a drug dealer by the name of Pink Lady played by the ever dependable Elvis Tsui. It's here we finally get to see Wang's talents as an action director as the two leads engage in a martial arts showdown against a group of thugs in a night club. His style of fight choreography is very much like his acting, no fancy moves just simple kicks, punches and take downs. Though it was a little difficult to take seriously as Chin Siu-Ho was dressed like he was auditioning for the live action version of Double Dragon.

Through out the earlier parts of the film we see Wang Lung-Wei as a violent criminal making dirty deals with a gangster played by Cheung Kuen. Most of these scenes are pretty routine Hong Kong gangster posturing. In fact the first hour or so of the film's run time is pretty unengaging for the most part. except for the scenes which feature Wang. There's a particularly harrowing scene in which he and his gang gun down a restaurant full of people with hand guns stolen from a group of cops earlier in the film. This scene shows that Wang was not going to be shy about showing violence on screen, especially when it involved innocent people.

I get the feeling this is something Wang had learned from working with Chang Cheh. Chang was a director who had no hesitations about killing off characters in his movies. If he absolutely, positively had to kill every main character, he would do it if it meant being able to tell a good story. I have to admire Wang's attempt to tell a good story here. Unfortunately most of it isn't good at all and is pretty typical Hong Kong Cop Caper fair that was extremely common place around this time. It's worth sticking with it though. Oh boy is it worth sticking with it because once we enter the last half hour of the film things turn extremely dark and extremely violent when the police have had enough and decide to go after Wang and his group.

I've seen a lot of Wang Lung-Wei's films and it's safe to say I have never seen him play such an angry, violently psychotic character before or since. While in films like Mercenaries From Hong Kong he did play short tempered but street tough characters, here we have him playing a completely unsympathetic lunatic. This is where Wang's strengths as a director start coming into play. He's able to keep the tension at a level which will keep you glued to the screen. Where else will you see him take on over a dozen police officers armed with nothing more then a pissed off attitude and an Uzi sub-machine gun? not in any other movie made around this time I can assure you.

This Man Is Dangerous isn't the perfect movie but it's a pretty solid debut for someone who obviously wanted to tell a story in his own unique style regardless of whether or not people liked it. When it was released it wasn't a particularly big hit at the local box office but Shaw Brothers were obviously more then happy to let him direct another film under their banner which leads us to our next film and one which is very special to not only myself but a number of my fellow fans and bloggers.

Released in the same year as This Man Is Dangerous, Hong Kong witnessed the arrival of an incredibly ambitious and blood soaked tale of Triad revenge on the streets of Hong Kong. Starring the trio of Leung Kar-Yan, Tsui Siu-Keung and Cheung Keung, Hong Kong Godfather sees them play a group of Triad brothers out to avenge the death of their uncle Han (Sek Kin) after the betrayal of Rotten Chi (Shum Wai) in order to help Lan (Wong Chun) gain territory and become the number one Godfather. After completing This Man Is Dangerous it seemed Wang had a little bit more money to play around with and as such the production values while still on the low budget side are much better spent on Hong Kong Godfather. What really sets this apart from Wang's previous film. is with that film the central characters were police officers and as such we saw them as well, nice guys for the most part who don't do anything particularly amoral or anything that could be considered a crime. This time however with Wang having written the script once again, we're following Triads and as such the film's narrative and characteristics aren't constrained by what a character can and can not do. 

The character Rotten Chi in particular is very much the catalyst that sets the course of events in motion that puts our film's heroes on a bloody, violent path of retribution. In the earlier scenes of the film we see him trying to kiss up to Han in an attempt to get in good. It's when Mad Wei (Kar-Yan) enters the picture that we see Chi's jealousy get the better of him and so when Lan makes him an offer that will help him gain better standing in the underworld he accepts. However in the later scene which sees Chi murder Han we finally see that he almost regrets what he is doing but knows that there's no turning back and shows no mercy as he stabs his beloved uncle to death. Shum Wei's face pulling may come across as a bit silly during this scene but it works as it shows just how emotionally damaging this is to him. As mentioned before innocent people don't fare too well when Wang Lung-Wei is directing and not only do we see the death of Han but his entire family including his 8 year old grandson who meets his demise by having his spine smashed before being thrown through a glass window.

Hong Kong Godfather is not a comedy, it's a dark, serious, angry and vengeful film that pulls no punches and spits blood on your face in order to show you these guys do not mess around. Wang also stretches his choreographic muscles a little bit more this time round. Much like the brief moments of hand to hand action in This Man Is Dangerous, the fighting here is simple with a little bit more stylistic edge to it. Almost every character uses a big chopper knife and this gives the scenes a little bit a swordplay vibe but the choreography is still grounded enough so that it doesn't become distracting or out of place. However the film isn't entirely flawless.

The acting, shall we say is pretty bad for the most part. As I mentioned in my previous column Leung Kar-Yan's performance is incredibly uneven. While he was an extremely talented screen fighter and has appeared in some brilliant Hong Kong films, he's never been the best of actors and Hong Kong Godfather does nothing to dis-spell that. During Han's funeral scene you can see he's trying hard to be all upset but all comes off as a bit silly. In fact, that's one of the reasons we and a few others love this film so much, it has so many mad things going on. Just look at Tsui Siu-Keung's hair for instance. Go on, just look at it:

See how ridiculous that things looks? it just screams 80's style right at you and the Sonny Crockett look doesn't help but I can't begrudge it too much since I'm a big fan of Miami Vice. Another what the hell were they thinking moment comes from the pet dogs belonging to Leung Kar-Yan's character. They end up actually playing an important role in the film, especially the German Shepherd Stallone who comes to his master's aide when they're attacked by Rotten Chi and his men. Still for all these crazy moments the closing reel of the film sees one of the most bloodiest, most violent and angry finales ever committed to a Shaws film and that's saying a lot given this was a studio who let Chang Cheh put his characters through the meat grinder during his heyday.

When the brown stuff finally hits the proverbial fans we see our three heroes storm the headquarters of Lan. This is were I think a lot of the budget was spent. Lots and lots of bright red fake Shaw Brothers blood. Seriously, there's a whole lot of bleeding happening during this finale. Wang literally paints the walls with his characters blood and it creates such a vivid image seeing all that red splashed against those clean white walls. The fight which takes place on the stairwell is incredibly brutal and sees our heroes take some seriously fatal hits but somehow manage to pull through. Tsui in particular gets it right in the neck but since he's so tough he just shrugs it off and becomes even more pissed off then he was before.

If you're wondering if Wang Lung-Wei himself appears? he does in a couple scenes. One in the beginning which sees him gun down a group of people in a Casino using the same Uzi from This Man Is Dangerous and toward the end when he fights Leung Kar-Yan in a brief but nicely done fight. Hong Kong Godfather is a memorable piece of 80's Hong Kong Crime Cinema, if only for the fact that it's so clearly out of it's own mind that it's determined to entertain you one way or the other. Upon it's release it wasn't such a huge hit but movies like this rarely were but this didn't deter Wang from pursuing his career as a film maker further. This time directing something less serious and directed a film that fits more into the action comedy mold that had become extremely popular in Hong Kong during the 80s.

After leaving Shaw Brothers in 1986, Wang directed The Innocent Interloper. A slightly more formulaic but incredibly fun action comedy about a social worker, Shee (Lawrence Ng) who unwittingly comes in possession of a pair of counterfeit money plates and finds himself being pursued by a group of gangsters led by Big Boss Cheun (Chan Cheuk-Fai) along with his right hand man Wicked Brain (Shing Fui-On) but manages to get help from his wayward father (Shum Wai) a tough as nails female fighter, Siao (Elaine Lui) and her brother Paleface (Hwang Jang Lee)

Forgoing any type of serious tone, Wang Lung-Wei directs a film that falls comfortably into to the huge list of action comedies which saw release during this time. Perhaps Wang realised if he wanted his films to be more successful then perhaps he should give them the type of film people liked. Of all the films I've looked at so far, The Innocent Interloper is probably Wang's most accomplished in terms of pacing, characterization and action direction. There doesn't seem to be any filler or terrible acting moments here. Each scene serves a purpose to the story no matter how brief it may seem. The opening especially sets the tone as we see Paleface escaping from a group of thugs having just stolen the counterfeiting plates from Cheun. We're treated to a surprisingly long and wonderfully choreographed action sequence which looks to have been inspired by Jackie Chan featuring lots of quick exchanges and high impact stunt work.

From there we're introduced to the film's key players including Shee, his father and Siao. Lawrence Ng does well enough, especially in some of the film's more quieter character moments, Shum Wai hams it up as his father and shows why he was one of the better actors in Hong Kong Godfather. Hwang Jang Lee meanwhile does what he does best, look like someone ate his lunch and kick people in the head. However the real stand out for me was Elaine Lui as Siao. I was familiar with Elaine, having seen her in a couple other Hong Kong movies but Innocent Interloper marked her acting debut and it has to be said she leaves quite an impression. Not only is she extremely good looking and a decent actress but she handles herself incredibly well during her many fight scenes. So well in fact that Elaine could have given Michelle Yeoh a run for money as the Queen of Hong Kong Action had she appeared in more films like this.

Shing Fui-On also earned himself lots of screen time as the bumbling Wicked Brain. He does a good job here and proves why he was one of more underrated character players working in the industry. To add to the whole Hong Kong Action Comedy vibe there's a ton of cameos thrown in from guys like Wong Yu and Bill Tung to Wong Jing and Chan Wai-Man. Cameos were a big thing during the 80's. That's what I love about these types of films, you always find yourself pointing out people you recognise. However those cameos don't stop the film's narrative in it's tracks and keeps the story moving at a pace so it doesn't become boring. Unlike Wang's previous films as director, the script was written by Huang Ying, who was the writer of films such as The Loot, Close Encounters of a Spooky Kind and Those Merry Souls. It pretty much shows that while I admire Wang's talents as a director his writing did leave a lot to be desired most of the time so it was a good move to bring someone else on board and help craft the story. Although it seems Wang didn't bother with a composer as all of the music ques have been lifted from other movies including Jackie Chan's Armour of God.

What sets Innocent Interloper apart from Wang's other movies besides the tone and characterization is the amount of action we're given. There's quite a lot in here. In fact more then I had originally anticipated. There is a truly wonderful sequence which sees Elaine fight off a group of thugs, while for some of the move it's obvious she was doubled but for the most part you can see it was her. There's a rather painful moment which has poor Elaine take a full on kick to the back of the head and it's a wonder she wasn't seriously injured. Hwang obviously gets to show off his fancy leg moves and has a very good fight with Chan Cheuk-Fai. a martial arts  practitioner who has only appeared in a handful of films and TV series throughout his career but I would hazard a guess and say that his fight against Hwang is probably the best he's ever done.

As you can tell I really enjoyed Innocent Interloper as Wang Lung-Wei has directed a film that is incredibly fun to watch and shows that he's  capable of doing more then just violent crime movies. Unfortunately the film was even less of a success financially but this could be due to the fact that the film featured no major stars but that shouldn't put you off getting the VCD since Fortune Star didn't feel the need to put it on DVD when it really is a film that deserves that treatment along with a number of their titles they released as part of their wonderful and affordable Legendary Collection. The Innocent Interloper is a fantastic slice of 80's Hong Kong action comedy and comes highly recommended to those who have yet to see it.

That is all for part one. Check back later next week as we head straight into part two and look at some more films directed by our mustachioed maestro!


  1. Excellent piece, Steve! Very energetic. Is INTERLOPER on DVD by chance? I should probably watch THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS. Had a non subbed copy for years now and never looked at it.

  2. Innocent Interloper is VCD only as far as I've seen. If there is a DVD, then I haven't come across it but you can get the VCD easily from dddhouse.