Thursday, 24 May 2012

Pointing In The Right Direction: A Look At The Directorial Work Of Wang Lung-Wei - Part 3

Finally, after many delays it is time for the third and final part of my article in which I'll be looking at the directorial work of Wang Lung-Wei. Last time we ended with a discussion about Wang's most successful film in terms of box office, Bloody Brotherhood. Drawing elements from classic Triad drama as well as American gangster pictures it was a very wild and very violent tale which saw Andy Lau spin out of control into an explosive and bloody finale. With this final part of the series I'll be taking a look at a film which sees Wang do something different to what he had attempted before.

If you've been following this article then you should know that, apart from Innocent Interloper, female characters in Wang's films haven't exactly had any impact and have been relegated mostly to wall flower roles or end up as innocent victims of circumstance due to the actions of one his film's characters. The Innocent Interloper did buck the trend a little by having Elaine Lui kick a serious amount of ass through the film's run time. So when Wang released his next film in 1990 he decided to give his audience a serious dose of girl power by showing that he could direct a film that could have female characters that were just as strong if not in some ways stronger then their male counterparts. That film is of course Widow Warriors.

Sek Kin returns to work with Wang once more as the aging patriarch of a Triad family. While attending an opera performance he is assassinated along with his sons in a vicious gangland takeover. It's left to his surviving daughters and in-laws to exact revenge on those responsible. Having had time to reflect upon the film I have to say this is one of Wang's stronger films in his canon of directed films. The story is actually really well written and each character is given their own opportunity to shine in their own way. The aforementioned assassination scene is very well directed which sees Wang building the tension through tight editing and some wonderful background music, which I'm sure was probably lifted from a different film but it's put to incredibly good use here. When the inevitable happens and Sek's character is killed the tension explodes in a furious gun battle between his two sons played by Chan Wai-Man and Ken Lo and a group of rival gangsters. Much look the opening gun battle of City Warriors it's very well done and further show cases Wang's skills at being able to set up gunplay as well as martial arts fight sequences. 

During the middle part of the film we see the daughter's of Sek's character coming to terms with what has happened. It's during this time that we get some great performances from the central cast. One actress in particular I really liked was Tien Niu as Long. Her character is not related to the family directly by blood but married into the family. Her husband died in a violent gang confrontation before the events of the film but when we meet her we see that she's all too familiar with the inner workings of the Triad way of life so when her in-laws are brutally murdered she's determined to get revenge. The interesting thing about her is how incredibly methodical she is in her approach. While the other daughters are eager to go out and kill the people responsible, Long decides to take a much slower route and makes careful plans that will eventually see her destroy her rivals.

It's an incredibly well thought out and wonderfully played piece of acting, which is a rarity fpr a female character in a Hong Kong film of this era which makes Niu's performance one of the big highlights of the film. She also acts against a good supporting cast. Winnie Lau plays her wayward daughter but doesn't do much except act like a big brat most of the time but there are one or two good moments shared with her and Niu. Elizabeth Lee plays the role of Ching-Ching. Having just returned from the US with her new husband, she finds that her new life is turned completely upside down after the death of her father and brothers. She tries to stay away from what is going on and just wants things to return to some form of normality but as the film progresses circumstances presents themselves which end up forcing her to embrace her destiny as the daughter of a Chinese ganglord.

Kara Hui makes an appearance and lends her considerable talents as a martial artist along with Michiko Nishiwaki playing the widow of Ken Lo. You have to wonder what type of children they could have had together. Incredibly tough ones thats for damns sure. There's a pretty long and brutal action set piece which sees Michiko and one of the sisters go after the head honcho responsible for the assassinations played by Stephen Chan. He doesn't do anything except let his girlfriend and his big burly female bodyguard played by Liu Fan do all the fighting. It's a nasty, ugly fight which sees everyone try and really hurt each other. However this just leads us p to a truly stunning action scene featuring Kara Hui.

What starts out as a quick foot chase turns into a full two on one brawl in a parking garage. Kara gets to display hers skills,which was something she rarely got to do during this point in her career. What amazes me though is that she takes some really hefty bumps. She also gets to exchange some really good techniques and easily best her opponents who act like the good sports that they are as they take it literally on the chin. It was while I was watched this that I thought Kara is definitely one of the more underrated female action stars to come out of Hong Kong and I was thrilled to see her bust some moves against Donnie in the recent film Wu Xia. I certainly hope she gets to have more wonderful screen fights like that in the future.

The rest of the film devotes it's time to the other sister's family turmoil and it was at this point things began to fizzle out. The few dialogue scenes were flat and I get the feeling Wang Lung-Wei was more comfortable directing scenes where people were dying in various outrageously violent ways. Luckily as we edge to the end of the film we get a fine action set piece which takes place in a junk yard which sees the remaining sisters and what is left of her father's Triad family take on the big bad boss. Much like the previous action scenes before it, the choreography is emotionally charged, hard hitting and uncomfortable but this is essentially Wang in his element as director and you get the feeling he thoroughly enjoyed putting his cast members through hell as they filmed this sequence.

Wang's favourite gun makes another appearance. This time in the hands of Tien Niu as she teams up with Elizabeth Lee to take down Stephen Chan. Our heroic sisters take some serious knocks and we end up with very solid ending to what has to be one of the more interesting films Wang Lung-Wei has directed. I would really recommend it to those who like strong female characters in their action films shouldn't hesitate about seeing this as you'll be pleasantly surprised by what Widow Warriors has to offer.

1991 would be the year Wang Lung-Wei's most sought after film would be released. Produced by none other Jackie Chan and featuring stunt and fight choreography by his very own stunt team. 1991 was the year The Angry Ranger was released. Ben Lam stars as Peter, fresh from prison after serving time for killing some Triad. He attempts to piece his life back together until one day he meets Jane (Leung Yuen-Jing) the two are immediately attracted to each other but things soon turn violent when Jane's boyfriend Han (Sun Chien) finds out and intends to put Peter in the ground. To make matters worse, a young Triad with the odd name of AIDS Lun (Jackie Lui) is determined to fight Peter and prove who is the better Traid.

As I mentioned earlier The Angry Ranger was an incredibly sought after film among fans. This was because, as stated earlier, the film features stunt and fight direction from Jackie Chan's very own Sing Ga Ban. A dedicted group of stuntmen who work very closely with Jackie on all of his films. Many of the alumni include Ken Lo, Andy Cheng, Brad Allan and Mars. Luckily the film's rarity diminished when it was released as part of Fortune Star's Legendary Collection and fans have been given the opportunity to finally see what all the fuss is about. Having watched the film I've come to the conclusion it isn't the all out action fest some fans have made it out to be it is however a flawed but still entertaining in it's own right action crime drama worthy of your attention.

Ben Lam while very good at performing martial arts and stunts, isn't the most compelling of leading actors. He has the broad shoulders and square jaw that make for a good looking action hero but he doesn't quite pull it off. His chemistry with most of the cast is a little stilted to say the least. His many scenes with co-star Leung Yuen-Jing are a bit awkward. They weren't out right terrible to watch. In fact there are one or two nice moments shared between them but it isn't going to be remembered as one of the great romances of Hong Kong film and for good reason. The real highlights come in the form of two characters; AIDS Lun and Big Cricle Han played by Jackie Lui and Sun Chien respectively. If you've seen as many Hong Kong Triad films as I have you begin to recognize all the trappings which create the genre. One is the loud, brash yet at the same time methodical and determined Triad Big Brother. We're given that in the form of these particular two characters.

Lui in particular seems to enjoy being able to play with this type of character immensely and you can see both he and Ben must have liked working together as the chemistry between them works a little better then any other relationship in the film. Sun Chien doesn't do much for what he's given except be a real nasty piece of work and do everything he can to kill the film's protagonist. Wang is never one to do things in a quiet, thoughtful way so to see him always feature characters like this is unsurprising. 

Given who was responsible for the action, I don't think I need to tell you if it's any good or not but I'm going to do it anyway. It seems that Jackie's stunt team are just as good as their big brother when it comes to staging action scenes. There's an excellent brawl in a night club which shows off Ben's skills as a fighter and set up that Peter is not someone who should be taken lightly. Stunt men get throw through tables, smashed into widows and kicked into signs. This all gives the scene much needed impact and makes it seem just little more painful to watch. There's also a very short but comical exchange between Peter and AIDS Lun in which Lun attempts to attack Peter with a knife only to be effortlessly disarmed. It's that type of moment you would expect to see in a Jackie Chan movie when the hero shows that he's able to get out a potentially dangerous situation without causing anyone unnecessary and serious harm.

However for me the real action highlight comes in the form a confrontation which takes place midway through the film. What begins as a straight up alley way brawl between Peter and a bunch of thugs suddenly turns into a one on one fight against a Triad boss played by Cheung Kwok-Wa. Cheung is an actor and stuntmen who has appeared in a number of films such as Avenging Eagle, Legendary Weapons of China and Aces Go Places. He also made appearances in Wang's previously directed films The Innocent Interloper and Bloody Brotherhood. The most interesting aspect of the fight comes in the contrast of the combatants fighting styles. While Peter uses a more contemporary street realistic style that mixes Western boxing with a few kicks, Cheung's character uses traditional Chinese Kung Fu. I loved this because this was Wang essentially going back to his roots as someone who got their start in the industry in classic Kung Fu films.

The fight has some brilliant exchanges and shows that the two are evenly matched despite having two very different ways of fighting. Even if you don't wish to view the film as a whole, I would recommend at least watching this fight alone as it was extremely rare for Hong Kong films to use classic Chinese martial arts in their films during this time. Even guys like Sammo and Jackie rarely used it and they were the two biggest innovators of the classical style during their prime. The rest of the action isn't as inventive or exciting but during the finale we do get a scene that features incredibly brutal uses of props and lots of painful stunt work. A crazy finale which sees Peter finally going after those which have antagonized him from the start. Jackie's boys make their big brother proud by putting together a finale that is violent in it's execution and intricately put together in it's choreography.

The Angry Ranger is a film I enjoyed quite a bit and would say it is probably Wang's most famous next to Hong Kong Godfather. I wouldn't say you should rush and get a copy like I would with Hong Kong Godfather but those reading this would probably be doing themselves a favor by watching it.

So we come to the final film Wang Lung-Wei directed. A film that is in some ways different to what has come before and one which is arguably his most infamous in terms of it's content. 1992 was the year Escape From Brothel was released.

Escape From Brothel tells the depressing tale of Hung (Pauline Chan) a prostitute who is desperate to get out of the life and start fresh with her lover Sam (Alex Fong). Unknown to her Sam arrives in Hong Kong from Mainland China under the pretense of starting a job as an illegal worker. Upon arrival he discovers he has to take part in a robbery under the orders of Billy (Billy Chow) and his father. The heist goes inevitably wrong and Sam goes on the run. He later finds himself reunited with Hung but it's not long before Billy decides to tie up any loose ends that might connect him to the robbery.

Prior to viewing this I had mixed feelings. I had read some pretty harsh reviews about it but my good friend KennyB of So Good Reviews had a lot of positive things to say. He also insisted that I view the complete uncut version as anything else would have been an insult to Wang Lung-Wei's intended vision. So, after viewing, I have to say that while it's not as terrible as the negative reviews made it out to be I still found this film to be incredibly difficult to enjoy for the most part but there are some good moments throughout the run time. The subject matter alone is so dark and depressing that I can't really recommend it to those who may be looking for a good time. Yet, if you're interested in films that are heavy in character, unflinching in it's violence and uneven in it's story telling then Escape From Brothel might just be what you are looking for.

The acting is actually pretty good for the most part if I'm being honest here. Pauline Chan  plays Hung with the right amount of desperation and sympathy that fits the tone of the story perfectly. She matches well with co-star Rena Murakami who plays Ann, also a hooker. You do get the feeling that they don't enjoy what they do and both have a desire to get out of the life but no matter what they do, they find themselves trapped  in this sad, pathetic lifestyle. It doesn't help that they constantly have Mama (Pak Yan) constantly palming off clients to them in hopes of making large amounts of money. Alex Fong does a good job in his role as the tragic lover of Hung. He over acts some of the time but when you look at the majority of Hong Kong films being made then and now, who doesn't?

Billy Chow plays a role I don't think I've seen him play before. A sleazy, violent and angry low-life who seems to enjoy hurting people and causing trouble for anyone around him. You get the feeling he wasn't particularly comfortable playing this type of role but Billy being the professional that he is doesn't let it effect his acting and he ends up being probably the best thing about this film. 

Given that this is a Category III film it features lots of full on nudity and sex. The opening credits alone which are done in a very stylish manner, attempt to set the tone for the film and it does work. The sex scenes however go on for far too long and it's obvious by the way they're directed Wang had no interest in them whatsoever. He's a director that thrives on violent confrontation, so unless someone is getting hurt, he doesn't seem to put any effort into them. I get the feeling this isn't something he wanted to direct in the first place and was just working with what he was given. 

The film does have some action in it. There's a rather memorable moment which sees Billy thrown down with Sophia Crawford. The reason it's so memorable is due to the fact that Crawford is completely starkers. I have to give her credit for being able to do this. It's hard to believe someone like Cynthia Rothrock or Karen Sheperd doing something like that. Billy shows off his skills and uses lots of painful looking kicks. It was brief but it shows the audience that this is a film in which it's characters don't mess around when it comes to inflicting pain. Especially later on the film where we bare witness to a rather harrowing torture scene involving Ann and some electrodes. Sam also gets in on the action at certain moments. The film makes a point of setting Sam up as a former gymnast who has good acrobatic skills and this comes into play later on. The first real fight between him and Billy is a knockdown, dragout brawl that I thought was good. The choreography provided by Tony Tam and Yiu Man-Gei was slightly lacking but given that Alex Fong isn't a trained martial artist unlike Billy, they must have approached these particular scenes in a way which would have been easy to perform for both actors involved.

Sadly from that point the film becomes a bit dull and tough to watch due to the many extended dialogue scenes, gratuitous moments of nudity and sex. I think that has more to do with me then the film because as much as I'm aware of and have seen my fair share of Cat III films, they just aren't my thing. Sorry to disappoint you Kenny but I won't be watching Dark Street Gigolo any time soon! However when we enter the final reel of the film we see that Wang Lung-Wei finally enters his element as a director and we are treated to a very brutal fight taking place on a construction site. This is where everything fell into place from the fight choreography to the acting. The fight choreography is especially worth mentioning as unlike say a Jackie Chan film where you have the happy go lucky policeman defending himself. Here we have two characters trying to outright kill each other and trying to use their environment to achieve it. Benny Lai even makes a quick cameo before being gutted by Billy. Wang just loves getting innocent people caught up in his characters shenanigans.  

The film ends in such a dark, nihilistic way that given what's come before during the runtime it's difficult to imagine it ending any other way. Escape From Brothel is a film you could easily skip if you weren't all that inclined to see it and would only recommend it to those who are into Cat III movies. The most bizarre thing about the film is that's it's Wang Lung-Wei's second most financially successful behind Bloody Brotherhood. So go figure.

So there it is.

The directorial career of Wang Lung-Wei. Having viewed all of his films it has come to the conclusion that while he may not have been a challenger to the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam, he certainly knew what he was doing when it came to making a movie. He was a director of films that are filled with raw, human emotion, blood soaked violence and memorable characters. It's a shame he never made any more films as I would love to see what he could do with a film made in the Hong Kong Film Industry as it is today.

A special thank you to each and every one of you who have followed what has been an incredibly cinematic journey. I hope you all enjoyed the ride. Be sure to keep checking back regularly for more reviews, articles, retrospectives and columns right here at Chopsticks On Fire.

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