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
“Beyond Hypothermia” (1996)
(Sanqueen/Milky Way Image; Dir. Patrick Leung
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
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
“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.