1994 - 2001

“The Other Side of the Sea” (1994)

(Long Shong Pictures/Filmax Production Co.; Dir. Raymond Lee Wai-man)

A well crafted film, “The Other Side of the Sea” gradually opens up like a puzzle box, until there is nothing left but a small boat on an empty ocean.  Michelle Lee (aka Michelle Reis) plays a mysterious stranger who rents a room in a peaceful fishing community on Lantau Island.  Finding temporary solace in the daily rhythms and struggles of this tight-knit community, she eventually forms friendships and a growing romance.  But, as glimpsed in seemingly disconnected flashbacks, the weight of the past presses unbearably.  The audience learns of her career as an assassin, but it is not until she leaves Lantau Island that the full truth is exposed.  Shifting back and forth with increasing rapidity between recent memory and the present, the assassin reveals how she has been first abused, then used, then betrayed.  Sentenced to death by her former employers, she is on the run.

Following the pause-burst-pause convention of action cinema on a grand scale, the film abruptly accelerates in the final third.  Killers materialize in mundane locations – on the street, in a hotel lobby.  The cold, slow-motion gunplay is all the more visually startling since it stands in such contrast to the warmth and humanity of the Lantau Island interlude.
Michelle Lee’s character is impossibly tough and impossibly accurate, but powerfully engaging nonetheless.  She generates a novel solution to the dilemma of being handcuffed to a hospital bed when assassins burst into the room.  Mirroring the earlier metaphor of a typhoon, the assassins track her once more to Lantau Island.  After all avenues of communication and escape are cut off, her only option is to stand and fight.  This “Heroic Bloodshed” climax is superbly choreographed.  When she shoots one of the bad guys without a flicker of emotion, the Islander who loves her is graphically exposed to who she really is.  As time runs out, she finally reveals all – leaving nothing more and nowhere to go.

“Beyond Hypothermia” (1996)

(Sanqueen/Milky Way Image; Dir. Patrick Leung Pak-kin)

This film boasts some terrific acting and some of the best assassin action sequences of the genre.  Viewers may either love or loath the Heroic Bloodshed ending which is nothing if not dramatic and exaggerated.  One of several slightly offbeat action films from Milkyway that seemed to reflect a transition from rather traditional plot and character devices to dislocated portrayals of increasingly alienated, disaffected individuals, “Beyond Hypothermia” features Jacqueline Wu as a contract assassin with an unusually low body temperature.  Icy in being and deed, she calmly tolerates the freezing temperature of an icehouse to make a hit, then returns to an isolated, paranoid existence surrounded by traps and sensors.

As with many assassin films, a thaw comes in the form of a chance romance.  After work, the assassin has been rewarding herself with noodles at a café near where she lives.  Very slowly she begins to form a tentative human bond with “Long Shek” (Lau Ching-wan) – the proprietor of the small street café.  Lau is excellent as the slightly perplexed yet strong figure who doesn’t begin to realize what he’s stumbled into until it is too late (another device of assassin films).  One moment Wu is unexpectedly standing right in front of him.  The next instant, she’s gone.  The very deprivation is enticing.  He falls for the enigma, she for the normalcy.
Although the film wallows a little in the more sentimental aspects of their relationship, the action more than compensates.  After the assassin dispatches a target in Korea, a fanatical bodyguard pursues her relentlessly.  Her cover is blown when she tries to quit the business to pursue her new relationship.  Cornered, she can only stand and fight – pulling out all the stops in a desperate ending.  The entire film is presented as a retrospective tale related by a dying person, eventually making clear how such things came to be.
Wu is both charming and cold in her role as the assassin.  The audience knows what Long Shek does not – that the object of his growing affection can unflinchingly kill anyone of any age.  Whether such a character deserves the almost childlike innocence of an unexpected, unlikely romance is not immediately obvious.  Excellent acting, competent action and atmospheric cinematography produce a slightly disturbing portrait of an unusual relationship.

“Velvet Gloves” (1996)

(Kuo Tai Film Co.; Dir. Billy Chan Wui-gnai)

If “Velvet Gloves” seems familiar, this may be because the film harkens back to the traditions of half a century ago.  Unlike most of the “training academy” action comedies that poke fun at discipline, authority and gender relations, this story is both simple and earnest.  Instructors (and fathers) are portrayed as firm and demanding, but with a heart of gold.  In the politically egalitarian spirit of its Mainland setting, the academy in “Gloves” is a rigorous training program that emphasizes teamwork and comradeship.  Jade Leung’s eager trainee “Feng Tin” springs to attention in the presence of superiors.  Post-operation criticism sessions comment on the utility of three shots – as opposed to one – in dropping a bad guy.  In these respects as well as its style – following a group of trainees seconded to an advanced special operations school – the film is disconcertingly linear.  There is no sub-plot.  These are simply dedicated young police trainees trying their best.  Some succeed while others drop out.

Certain cinematic devices, such as the series of full face cameos comprising the film’s opening scenes, and the goose-stepping march past with banners as the credits roll, evoke propagandistic themes concerning molding individuals into a collective.  In between, the trainees mount several efficient operations to eliminate various groups of criminals.  Weapons of choice include MP5 submachine guns and explosives.  Although the action choreography is undistinguished – and frankly exaggerated in the final fight sequence – it is nevertheless sufficient to maintain interest and dramatic tension.  On the credit side, the uniforms look great and some attention has been paid to tactical realism.
The film’s title refers to Feng Tin’s habit of wearing black gloves that belonged to her brother who was killed in action.  In several respects this film stands as an interesting contrast to the “Inspector Wears Skirts” series.

“Enter the Eagles” (1998)

(Golden Harvest; Dir. Corey Yuen)

Despite an almost cartoonish plot, “Enter the Eagles” features intriguing performances and location shooting in the Czech Republic.  Michael Wong plays “Marty,” an English-speaking professional thief, who leads his gweilo gang in an elaborate heist to steal a very large diamond from a well-guarded museum on Castle Hill in Prague.  Over some objections from his men, he decides to recruit is former sister-in-law “Mandy” (Shannon Lee) as additional muscle.  The gang’s elaborate plot is derailed by a duo of petty thieves played by Jordan Chan and Anita Yuen – both of whom display talent for self-deprecating action comedy.

When Jordan Chan’s character “Tommy” is discovered in the act of stealing the jewel, he swallows it.  Marty’s gang mounts an assault on the police station to rescue him, and abducts his girl friend as insurance.  Anita Yuen is quite disarming in this role.  At one point her character ensures that she’s the only candidate for an interview at the museum by telling the waiting Czech applicants that the job requires they speak Chinese!  It’s a measure of the film’s capacity to generate good-humored suspension of disbelief that the gag works.

Yuen pouts, pleads and cajoles, but also displays a hard character core that ultimately distinguishes the best HK femme fatale movies.  She’s initially taken under Mandy’s wing, but returns to save her protector when the action constitutes “woman abuse.”  By the film’s climax Yuen is carving through the opposition with a machine pistol and broken glass – eventually planning her next caper with Mandy.

Above all, this film provides an opportunity for Shannon Lee to display her athleticism and martial arts skills opposite her mentor – Benny “The Jet” Urquidez.  With maturity, he presents an interesting screen persona, and plays an excellent screen villain as the “fence” in this high-stakes robbery.  Lee displays a lot of combat pistol work, some energetic stunts and a spirited martial arts performance.  Her physically robust screen presence perhaps most closely resembles her father’s with a distinctively stony gaze.  Lee’s pairing and eventually partnership with Yuen is a good combination and study in contrasts.

Everything converges on a final fight in an airship.  This is well choreographed and satisfyingly drawn out.  Along the way, there is ample gunplay and some nice scenery.  Forget the plot and enjoy the movie.

“Portland Street Blues” (1998)

(Bob & Partners Co., Ltd.; Dir. Raymond Yip Wai-man)

An additional half hour of running time above the average allows “Portland Street Blues” to shift back and forth between time, character and locations with satisfying dramatic integrity.  The film justifiably garnered award nominations for the three principal female actors.  Sandra Ng’s fine performance and compelling screen presence as “Sister Thirteen” energize the film throughout.  Her current rather gaunt physique contributes to her character’s hard screen persona, accentuated by excellent close-up filming of nuances of calculating facial expression.  The story weaves back and forth between Thirteen’s late adolescence on the fringes of triad society, and what she must later do to become the only female boss of the Hung Hing gang.  Her character unfolds as superficially defiant and brashly assertive, yet this appears to conceal vulnerability and pathos.  Apparently bisexual, Thirteen endures the slight of others looking past her to admire her close friend “Yun” – ably acted by Kristy Yeung.  Seemingly unable to fully understand intimacy, Thirteen eventually defines herself as lesbian, yet ironically misses the most obvious opportunity to form a genuine relationship.  Instead, she has the misfortune to become infatuated with “Coke,” a member of a rival triad who takes refuge in the Mainland.  Alex Fong also brings considerable subtlety to this nearly wordless part.

Thirteen’s character arc spans three key events – coming of age following the murder of her father (Ng Man-tat), coming to terms with her identity, and becoming a triad.  These reflective, inner themes are given external reference by action.  Deaths and brutality provide the punctuation to a discourse on how people misunderstand and mistreat each other.  Thirteen evolves from a spike-haired, street-smart teen into a shrewd and occasionally ruthless adult.  Swimming with the current of male-dominated triad society, Thirteen develops suspicion as tool of survival.  Yet the emotional price of acquiring masculine habits is presented as very high.  The female drug addict “Scarface” (Shu Qi) plays a pivotal role in Thirteen’s transition, as her own downfall – brought on by a disastrous relationship with a corrupt detective – provides opportunity for Thirteen’s advancement in Hung Hing.
The various strands of this emotionally complex saga are eventually woven together in a satisfying action resolution, when Thirteen is faced with an attempted takeover by a rival gang.  Only the final scene (a clear reference to the “Young and Dangerous” series) does not ring true.  Good cinematography, uniformly superior acting and a haunting theme combine to produce a fine action drama.  This is definitely not a GWG film, although there is gunplay.  The violence, when it occurs, is both unexpected and emotionally significant.  Most of the film’s energy focuses on the accompanying exploitation and erosion of trust.

“Martial Angels” (2001)

(Film Power Co.; Dir. Clarence Ford)

“Martial Angels” will disappoint unless approached from the appropriate perspective.  It opens strongly, with some of the most stylishly sensual cinematography seen in recent HK action films.  Rapid cutting and strong score maintain interest that is deepened with the emergence of an ambiguous relationship between the leading characters of Shu Qi and Kelly Lin.  But this is not going to be “Naked Killer,” and the film sags and loses momentum as it approaches its climax.  Several other Clarence Fok titles also seem to suffer from weak endings after opening stylishly.  But arresting visual style is not enough.

There is one action scene in “Martial Angels” that is well executed.  Shu Qi’s ex-thief recruits her former high-tech female partners in crime – a gang headed by Sandra Ng – to help rescue her ex-boyfriend from the Russian mafia.  Shotguns blast holes in doors, machine pistols pop, the bullets and bodies fly.  But that’s it, and not even Sandra Ng’s star power can save things.  The film simply veers into a predictable groove involving romance/kidnapping/break-in/double-cross capers, without the style with which it opened.  The final showdown lacks dramatic suspense.  As usual, the villain has the best part, and one wishes she’d simply finished off her rivals on the spot.  At least, that’s what would have happened in “Angel,” fifteen years before.
Despite all of this, the film deserves a place in the roster of the best – if only because it represents the most coherent attempted revival of GWG in the last few years.  Sandra Ng – as always – is fascinating.  Kelly Lin also displays potential as a femme fatale with a jagged edge.  Shu Qi is appealing and gives a spirited performance.  But the other “Angels” seem selected more for their pulchritude than pluck.  It’s a story of might-have-been that is nevertheless worthy of a viewing.