Where a Good Man Goes

This is an interesting though ever so slightly disappointing film from Milkyway Productions. It is filmed in a much more straight forward manner then most of their previous efforts with little of the swooning distorting camera effects and the obscure plot lines. It also feels like a much smaller more intimate canvass that To is using to paint his story with than the previous larger scale productions.

It has a slight film noir feel to it as Lau Ching-wan plays an ex-con trapped in the web of his past life and yet searching for some kind of redemption. There is also something about Macao and its narrow shadowy streets – where this story takes place – which just oozes noir and intrigue.

Just released from prison, the quick-tempered Lau immediately gets into a fight with his cab driver. A few other drivers join in and Lau beats them all off. Finding himself in a pouring rain, he goes into the closest inn that turns out to be run by Ruby Wong - a no-nonsense widow with a young son. Lau is the lodger from hell with his temper and his demands, but she calmly accepts his abuse.
Ruby Wong
The next day Lau is arrested by the police cousin (Lam Suet) of one of the taxi drivers and is only released when Ruby testifies that the cab drivers began the fight. This is the beginning of problems for both of them. The cop becomes fanatically intent on sending Lau back to jail and the taxi drivers all over the city refuse to take customers to the hotel because of her statement and because she is allowing him to stay. Her business begins to fall apart, but her sense of values makes it impossible for her to force Lau to leave.
Lam Suet
Ruby is an interesting though somewhat enigmatic character here. She goes through the film with nearly the same stoic expression and yet she still manages to convey a quiet sense of strength and goodness. Lau begins to realize this and finds himself drawn to her and to her life and he starts helping around the inn. He feels guilty for bringing so much trouble to her door, but he can’t seem to leave.

He has problems of his own though. Before going to prison he was a big shot triad moneylender and collector, but now he finds things have changed – both out in the world and within himself. Lots of people owe him money, but no one seems able to pay him back and he can’t find it within himself to go the extra violent mile to force the issue. Its like a football receiver losing a step – soon no one fears you.

All of these different plot lines weave an interesting story, but the main core of the film is the relationship that develops between Lau and Ruby. This though is the part that I can never really buy. She seems to sense that below his volatile personality lies the essence of a good man and she continues to support him through very difficult circumstances and even one brutal confrontation between the two of them. I don’t understand why. Lau has his charming side – and he has a sense of honor – but overall he is not really a very likable guy. And any passion or chemistry between the two of them is left unspoken.
Still the movie has a number of things going for it – the two good lead performances – and a nice turn from the cop who plays it wonderfully smarmy and snakelike. There are some good confrontations between Lau Ching-wan and Lam Suet – one which will have you laughing. 

My rating for this film: 7.0


Reviewed by YTSL

 
In a nutshell:  It truly does seem to be the case that how you (will) feel about this Johnnie To film can be determined by your opinion about whether its (anti-)hero IS a good man, the plausibility of the relationship between its two protagonists (memorably as well as convincingly portrayed by Lau Ching Wan and Ruby Wong) and your reaction to what I shall call -- and you will undoubtedly recognize, upon viewing it, as -- "That Scene".  This much one must conclude not only after watching the local choice to open the 1999 Hong Kong International Film Festival but also reading the divergent (re)views of it on this along with other websites and the Asian Film Discussion Forum.

For my part, I found WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES to be gripping, thought provoking as well as controversial, and utterly moving.  The first piece of this opinion is made true in large part because there is an unpredictability and edge to this eventful film that is supplied and embodied to a great extent by the central character of this dramatic work.  The audience's first glimpse of Michael Cheung is of him in a taxi, being quite the obnoxious customer who acts like he is used to throwing his weight around the place.  Within minutes though, one sees that most people are hardly going to stand for this kind of behavior. Not only is Michael set upon by the taxi driver and two of his colleagues but he also gets publicly humiliated by the plain-clothes police unit led by a sleazy relative ("Fat Karl" is ably played by Lam Suet!) of the driver whose cab the proud triad member, whose asserted motto is "live gloriously, die without regret", had the ill fortune to take his first post-jail-time ride.
The second component of my assertion can be particularly applied to Michael's interactions and relationship with the proprietor of the International Inn, the cheapest motel in (that area of) Macao, into which he staggers post fight and end ups being a lodger.  Judy Lin/Lam (N.B. For some reason, we hear her being called "Lam siu chea" -- "Siu Chea" being a honorific term akin to the Miss, Ms. or Madam -- but see her name appearing in the English subtitles as Judy Lin) is a Gary Cooperesque strong, silent, stoic woman to me; and as honorable and liable to take the noble, high road to boot.  This widowed mother not only is in many ways the opposite of such as the brazen innkeeper essayed by Maggie Cheung in "Dragon Inn" but also presents a stark contrast to the bombastic and boastful Michael as well as his glamorous -- yet cheaper-looking -- estranged wife (played by Tsang Siu-yin).
Lau Ching-wan and Tsang Siu-yin
I cannot overemphasize that an understanding of what Michael sees in Judy and why she does trust that he is a good man (despite what he does to her as well as how he treats others), plus a belief that this is not just one of those unbelievable "only in movies" case of "opposites attracting", is key -- and necessary -- to accepting a lot of what happens in what I do see as a caring relationship along with an excellent film in general.  Without some amount or degree of comprehension and feelings of empathy for -- or at least tolerance of the actions of the tough talking (and aggressive acting) man and the sturdy reactions of the sacrificing woman -- both Michael and Judy, the viewer will also be likely to be left unmoved, and in fact may even become appalled, by quite a few developments in and conclusions of WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES.  It is even entirely possible that the sensitive viewer will majorly think ill of this movie as well as individuals in it.

This would be a shame; not least, because IMHO there actually are some really seriously intelligent messages, interesting (sub)stories and touching moments in this nuanced film.  Among them are those involving issues of trust and honor.  This (re)viewer also found some quite specific ruminations of what happiness constitutes, where home really is, and what one is prepared to do for people that one truly cares for. Then there is what appears to be a rather obvious rebuke to those whose 99-year lease of a Chinese territory expired in 1997...

At the risk of being accused of reading too much into this less pessimistic-than-usual Milkyway production, it is not (co)incidental to me that this Hong Kong movie filmed and set in contemporary Macao features a "three years later" coda in which we are told that some of the characters now live in Portugal.  For the record:  In light of Macao's reverting back to (Communist) Chinese rule this month (December 1999), all Macanese who seek it are being granted full Portuguese citizenship and therefore European Union residency.  It is a sore point to Hong Kongers and a black mark on its former colonial master that the British did no such equivalent thing for them.

My rating for the film:  9.5.