Monday, 7 May 2012

Pointing In The Right Direction: A Look At The Directorial Work of Wang Lung-Wei - Part 2

Now it's time for the second part of my article series on the directorial work of Wang Lung-Wei. In my previous installment I looked at the earlier part of Wang's filmography leaving you with my thoughts on the thoroughly enjoyable action comedy The Innocent Interloper. Despite showing a deft hand for the genre it seemed when entering the next phase of his career he decided to get down and dirty once again and start directing serious crime action flicks. The first of which I'll be looking at will be the single film released by D&B Films. It is none other then Fury.

Released in 1988 Wang directs a film which owes more then a little to John Woo's all-time classic A Better Tomorrow. This doesn't help matters when one of the stars from that film Waise Lee is the lead. Lee plays Chou Chi-To, a small time criminal working with his best friend Lucky (Michael Wong) and Auyeung Chick (Philip Chan). The three are in Taiwan working a deal with a group of gangsters involving counterfeit bank notes when thanks to a double cross by Chou's cousin Chan Lau (Cheung Kuen) police arrive and a shoot out ensues. Chou, Chan and Auyueng manage to escape but Lucky is caught and arrested. When travelling back to Hong Kong by boat, Chan murders Lucky's wife Ngao(Carrie Ng) and shoots Auyeung who falls overboard. Chan's reason being that he was protecting his cousin. Years later Lucky is released from prison and is reunited with Chou. Chou lies about Lucky's wife saying she has gone missing and Auyueng being dead. When Chan learns of Lucky's return he decides to hatch a plot to get rid of him and tie up any loose ends that might bring down both him and his cousin.

As I mentioned before this film was produced by D&B Films. Long time fans of Hong Kong Action Cinema may now they were a production company founded by Sammo Hung, Dickson Poon and John Sham and produced some of the finest of examples of Hong Kong Action Filmaking in the history of the industry. Films such as Royal Warriors, Tiger Cage 2 and In The Line of Duty 4 were just some of the films they released that have gained strong fan followings. Fury is another solid entry in their canon of films and shows that as Wang's career progressed his skills as a director did seem to improve.

Unlike most of his previous films which featured smatterings of martial arts action. This time we are treated to some nicely done shoot outs as well as some quick but tightly choreographed martial arts. The shoot out in the beginning of the films which sees the protagonists take on Taiwanese police led by an eye-patch wearing Wang and another actor who seems to have appeared in almost all of Wang's films up to this point Shum Wai. Sadly they only appear as quick cameos but they partake in an excellent shoot out sequence that wouldn't look too out of place in a John Woo film. See what I mean about the A Better Tomorrow connection? I certainly don't blame Wang for making a film like this. Everyone was doing their own version of it so it only seemed natural that Wang perhaps tried to go with the trends of Hong Kong Cinema once more and try and deliver a film that might work for local audiences.

Sadly that kind of momentum quickly fizzes out as the middle part of the film is devoid of very little action. Although it has to be said that the acting performances are very good all round. Waise Lee gives a nicely understated performance as Chou most of the time but doesn't seem to be able to play it smooth whenever there are any emotionally heavy moments. He doesn't seem to be able to find a good balance but instead cranks from 1 to 11 in an instant whenever there's meant to be a point when things get heavy. The most lovable piece of wood to ever enter the Hong Kong Film Industry, Michael Wong is also pretty good. It's clear he can't speak Cantonese very well judging from his mouth movements but his some what cold acting style worked in the film's favour. It's worth mentioning that at one point in the film we see him giving a demonstration of his break dancing skills.

I don't know what was more weird. That fact there's a movie with Michael Wong break dancing or the fact that Wong is actually GOOD at it. Either way it was a throwaway moment but one I'm sure Michael enjoyed filming. Philip Chan does what Philip Chan always does play it serious and gives a good solid acting performance all round as a man who is out to kill Chou for his cousin's betrayal. My favourite acting performance out of the whole thing has to be Cheung Kuen as Chan Lau. Having pretty much worked on all of Wang's movies as what I think was a producer, Cheung gets his biggest and best acting role in a Wang Lung-Wei film. Mixing loyalty and deviousness Cheung creates a character who is so despicable that you can't help but hate how slimy he can be. Whether he's kissing up to local police to keep him out of jail or planning to off Lucky in some painful and possibly humiliating way, Cheung's performance is definitely one to watch out for.

In terms of the story things do certainly pick up when entering the final act. Lucky is taken into custody for an earlier shoot out in the film and when he's being transported by van they are attacked by Cheung and his cronies. Chou comes to the rescue with the help of Auyeung and his son Wen. This is when we get a pretty well done shoot out which is funny when you realise the whole thing is happening around a van and a truck. Yet with Wang's skills as an action director he's able to keep the tension at a good pace and keep the action flowing in a way that is immensely satisfying.

Fury is a great crime action thriller that while not perfect (Which Hong Kong film during the 1980's was?) is still worth watching and shows that Wang Lung-Wei's skill as a storyteller did improve and also showed that he can be extremely versatile in the type of action he could portray on screen. 1988 wouldn't be the only year Wang would release a film. That year saw him put out what I think is an incredibly fun and highly recommended action film starring one of my favourite Hong Kong actors Dick Wei and the underrated but oh so good at kicking ass Ken Lo. What film is this, I hear you ask? It is of course, City Warriors!

City Warriors tells the story of Lok-Han(Wei), A soldier from Mainland China who arrives in Hong Kong looking for his estranged sister Ling. Meanwhile Ling is working as a prostitute thanks to her rather unlikable husband Tang Sai-Kit(Lo). Lok decides to track her down with the help of a tourist group supervisor Ying (Carina Lau) all the while avoiding her police man uncle, Detective Mak (Ko Chun-Sung).

The first thing you'd notice about City Warriors is that it's working with an even smaller budget then any of Wang's previous films. Not that it matters as he was able to craft a film that while storywise is incredibly simplistic has some very good and well put together action sequences thanks mostly to having two capable leading men in Dick Wei and Ken Lo. The film opens with a stakeout led by Mak in which he is waiting to nab a group of people known as The Mainland Gang. A group of criminals who have a reputation of coming into Hong Kong and just ruining everybody's day. When three of the gang show up it quickly turns into a bloody shoot out that ends up with Mak chasing one of the criminals onto a bus. Wang's reputation for getting innocent people caught in the cross fire of his character's actions come into play here but thanks to some quick thinking from Mak he's able to subdue the criminal.

I really enjoyed this particular sequence because we get some nice stunt work and lots of bullets flying and it perfectly sets the tone for just how dark and violent a movie you're going to watch. From then on we get a very breezy, no nonsense story line. I always admire this aspect of Wang's movies. It's clear he's not a director who likes to stretch things out and much prefers getting straight to the point. This is reflected in both his style of action and his style of story telling. His movies may not have been award winners or even worthy of a nomination at local film award ceremonies but I find it admirable that he was someone who just wanted to tell good stories about characters in serious and brutal situations.

I actually liked the story in this one. I think this mostly had to do with the characters. Dick Wei's Lok-Han as the stoic soldier was played pretty much to perfection. Wei was never the best of actors so this character suited him to the ground. Ken Lo seems to enjoy playing the sleazy Tang. I love when you can see an actor clearly enjoying themselves. It can seem a little self-indulgent but come on who wouldn't enjoy being the bad guy? let's be fair here, they are always more fun to play because they aren't restrained in a way a heroic character is. They can do things the good guys can't. One actress I wasn't expecting to be in this was Carina Lau. One of my favourite Hong Kong actresses, it was a delight to see her appear in this. Her role is strictly wall-flower material but I still liked seeing her. 

Ko Chun-Sung as Mak is another decent performance. What I liked was even though he's a police detective he isn't perfect. He has a deep-seated hatred for Mainland Chinese. This is mostly due to the fact he has a bullet lodged in his stomach from being shot by one of the Mainland Gang so when he meets Lok-Han he is extremely distrustful of him. Also he carries around a .357 magnum because it's mentioned that the character likes to think of himself as a Dirty Harry style detective dispensing justice one bullet at a time. Guess who else appears in this movie. Go on, guess. If you answered Shum Wai give yourself a pat on the back. Yes, Shum Wai once again appears in a film directed by Wang Lung-Wei. At this point I'm beginning to think the two must have been good friends and were willing to help each other out. Wang himself made an appearance in Spiritually A Cop, a film directed by, you guessed it, Shum Wai. I haven't seen that particular film yet but I will be getting my hands on it soon so I may review it but that will have to wait.

Shum Wai plays what has to be one of the more unusual roles I've seen him play. A Homosexual pimp by the name of Big Sister. He struts around in an effeminate manner wearing gaudy clothes and make up. I have to at least give the man credit for trying to be different each time he appears in Wang's movies. It's fun to watch him play around and make his co-stars uncomfortable with his a little too believable portrayal of Big Sister. Lastly we have Yuen Chor as a corrupt politician. What I did find silly was that Wang was trying to hide the fact that it was Yuen playing this role. He would often have extreme close ups of his mouth or have his head out of shot but it is so clearly Yuen that when the dramatic reveal is made it's completely wasted. Why he wanted this characters identity hidden is beyond me. Had he introduced his character earlier as someone who seemed to be on the side of good then later revealed his true nature then yes there would have been a need for it but considering you don't know who he is until the big reveal it just seemed like a waste of a plot device.

Problems with the story aside we do get some great action scenes. As you'd expect with guys like Wei and Lo as the main characters we get to see them do what they do best, throw kicks and make it look like it hurt. Especially Wei who had a reputation for being a hard hitter which made many an actor and stunt man reluctant to work with him. Lo also shows his talent as probably the most underrated boot man who worked in the industry during this time. He would be used to amazing effect in Jackie Chan's Drunken Master 2 but elsewhere he never really got to show his stuff. In films like this there would be bursts of it but he never got to be full on and that's a shame as he is an immensely talented martial artist. Both actors get their fair share of hand to hand combat and Ken Lo gets involved in a wonderful shoot out which sees him taking on the police armed only with a shotgun.

Now as you'd expect both Wei and Lo do end up clashing in the final moments of the film but it's not what you'd expect. The choreography is less stylised. For two people who are experts at kicking I was expecting more incredibly  brutal on screen fighting but it seems Wang couldn't quite figure out how to pull it off so we get a straight up bloody fisted brawl. It's good for what we end up with but he ends up selling both Wei and Lo short. City Warriors is still a decent and in some ways fun to watch action thriller and if you're a Dick Wei fan like I am you owe yourself to track it down and give it a watch.

Now it's time to talk about what is Wang Lung-Wei's most successful film financially. Although I think that has to do more with who is starring in it. Bringing together a top cast (Wang always seemed to have great casts for his films) in a story of brotherhood, violence and redemption, 1989 was the year Bloody Brotherhood was released.

Andy Lau stars as Cheung Ka-Wah who is travelling from Mainland China to Hong Kong with his brother Ka-Wai (Lam Wai) and his mother and father. Their boat is intercepted by Border Patrol and in an ensuing gun battle both his parents die, Wah is shot and falls overboard and Wai is arrested. Wah washes up ashore and is taken in by Chiu (Irene Wan) and her father. Wah decides to finally make it in Hong Kong which was seen as a land of opportunity but soon falls fowl to a group of local Triad. When he confronts their boss Tong Fai (Chan Wai-Man) he's offered a place with his crime family and this sets in motion a series of events which will eventually lead to a bloody climax.

Prior to watching this I went into it with mixed feelings. I had read several rather unflattering reviews which didn't paint the film in a particularly good light so my expectations were a little low. However in retrospect I'm glad my expectations had been lowered because Bloody Brotherhood is an extremely enjoyable late 80's Triad Action Drama that while it lays on the melodrama a little thick some times does actually make for a decent watch. Unlike Wang's previous films that used lots of gunplay, Bloody Brotherhood goes the Hong Kong Godfather route and uses lots of stylised brawling for it's action sequences. Also like Hong Kong Godfather, Wang has assembled a cast that is more then capable of fulfilling what is required. Andy Lau shows that he's more then just good looks and a wonderful singing voice. For someone who was never formally trained he does exceptionally well. More so then any other actor who performed martial arts during this time.

I often find that when you take an actor who doesn't have any extensive training and throw them into a fight scene, they can come off as incredibly stiff and uncoordinated but Andy doesn't seem to suffer this problem and looks very natural throwing kicks and punches. Another astounding fact about Andy is that Bloody Brotherhood was one of seventeen movies he acted in during 1989. Seventeen?! I think it's safe to say Andy was and still is one of the hardest working actors in the Hong Kong film industry and for that alone he has my respect and admiration. His acting performance in this is good all round. He gives his scenes the right emotional content required without it coming on too stilted and just goes to show despite this being a very busy year for him, he never let his acting slump in anyway. Also for someone who was essentially a big pin-up idol he's not afraid to go against his image and play someone who can be impulsive and violent.

If you look at his filmography he's had a very versatile career in terms of the characters he has played and Bloody Brotherhood is just one of many dark and violent Triad dramas he's appeared in during his long and successful career. Helping him make Bloody Brotherhood a wild and crazy ride are his co-stars. Lam Wai plays his brother and he gives his usual caliber of acting as well as shows his talent for hand to hand combat. Lam Wai is an actor who, much like Andy, has appeared in many crime dramas and has a reputation among fandom as being somewhat under-appreciated but Bloody Brotherhood is a good example of why fans like him so much. Chan Wai-Man gets what I feel is a rare opportunity to do some great acting. Tong Fai is a character that goes from being on top of the world to being right under it thanks to some underhanded tactics from his rival played by Shum Wai. Yep he's here yet again this time playing a character closer to the one he portrayed in Hong Kong Godfather.

There's a rather touching scene when Wah and Tong are reunited after Tong has spent a few years in prison. It's here we realise just how far he's fallen and has gone from someone who commanded his own family to a man forced to wash windows to make a living. It's a scene that comes right out of A Better Tomorrow and pretty much conveys without dialogue Tong's situation entirely. Also Chan gets to have a really great brawl with Philip Ko who makes an appearance as a hot-headed Triad looking to make trouble. It's short but seeing these two veterans go at it was fun to watch. Playing Wah's wife is Irene Wan. Like Carina Lau in City Warriors her character is nothing more then the wall flower. It seems unless female characters are kicking a serious amount of ass then he doesn't seem interested in them. Although my opinion on that could change when I get round to talking about Widow Warriors and Escape From Brothel.

I touched upon earlier the type of action Bloody Brotherhood contains and what we have here is a surprising amount. Andy even gets to go toe to toe with none other then Dick Wei. It seems Wei must have enjoyed working with Wang Lung-Wei that he readily agreed to make a quick appearance here. Their fight is nothing fancy but it does look like Andy's arms take some abuse from Wei's fists. The choreography was provided by Hung San-Nam and Tony Tam. Two stuntmen and actors who have served as action directors on a few other films. Tony Tam also did the fight scenes for Fury and also for Escape From Brothel. The moves are nothing fancy but it's pretty brutal and hard hitting. I couldn't help but keep comparing this to Wang's earlier film Hong Kong Godfather. While storywise they share very little similarities. There was just something about the tone of the film that kept bringing it into my mind.

I think one of the reasons for this is because things turn insanely violent toward the end of the film. After going through absolute Hell, Wah has had enough and decides to take out Shum Wai's character and storms a restaurant armed with a saw. Something Cheung Kuen used to great affect in Hong Kong Godfather. The gore is nowhere on the level as that film but the way the brawl plays out and the fact everyone looks like they're trying to genuinely kill each other does make the two more comparable. I loved this fight. I like it when films are not afraid to really crank up the brutality if it helps make the film work all the more better for it and while sometimes it might go too far and end becoming distracting and clashing with the rest of the film, Here it does just the trick and we end up with an all out finale that makes it worth seeing.

Bloody Brotherhood probably won't be held in high regard among other Hong Kong film fans as it really doesn't do anything original to make it stand out but what we do have is a solid entry into the genre that has good acting performances from it's principal cast and some bloody and intense action scenes. Worth seeing if you're a junkie of the Triad genre.

So concludes the second part of the article. Hope you all enjoyed reading this as much I liked writing. Be sure to check back soon for the concluding entry as we look at the directorial work of Wang Lung-Wei.


  1. Great stuff, Steve! I've not heard of some of these. BLOODY BROTHERHOOD sounds good, too. It would be interesting to know if Wang preferred doing the modern gangster pictures, or if he was just doing what was handed to him because of popular trends at the time.

  2. He seemed to direct with a little more enthusiasm whenever he's done a crime movie. Let's hope that enthusiasm continues when I watch the remaining films on the list.

  3. He seems like a really accessible guy and friendly. I remember a site some years ago where these two women had went over there and met both him and Lo Mang and they posted the photos.

  4. Yeah, I've heard that. I would love to have the opportunity to meet the man as he strikes me as someone who has quite a lot to say about his career.