Burning Ambition

This is an unrelenting and somewhat downbeat action film that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. It has an interesting plot that is often punctuated with violent gun and kung-fu action.  Nearly everyone in the excellent cast gets some prime time on the screen and an opportunity to get involved in the action. Though it takes place within the structure of a triad film, it is nearly Shakespearean in its themes of family against family, brother against brother and finally son against father.

Roy Chiao heads a large triad family composed of various factions. At a family dinner he announces that when he soon moves to Canada his youngest son Simon Yam will take over the business. Though he is not aware of it, he is also signing his own death warrant with this pronouncement. One of the senior members of the triad, Uncle Hsiong, decides that this is the time to make a power play. During an assassination attempt, Hsiong kills Chiao while pretending to protect him. While the body is still warm, Hsiong makes an alliance with the oldest son and promises to put him in charge of the family.

Simon Yam and Roy Chiao
The matriarch of the family though realizes what is happening and almost immediately goes gunning for Hsiong. Soon the lines are drawn and it is an all out war. On Hsiong’s side are his children – Yukari Oshima, Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Frankie Chan and numerous minions. Chan also brings five friends/killers from Amsterdam to help out. On the matriarch’s side is Simon Yam, Eddie Ko, various minions and five imported professional gweilo killers.
Yam , Eddie Ko and Mom
As one might imagine this leads to a lot of action and a lot of killing. One scene in particular is a classic. Uncle Hsiong and three of his children are dining at a Japanese restaurant when the other side tries to kill him. His three children surround and protect him like an impenetrable barrier. The fight tumbles out into the parking garage where Yukari and Kara kill off waves of attackers with their feet, hands, bats, knives and whatever else is at hand.  Uncle Hsiong and his children are in their bare feet due to having been eating in a Japanese restaurant and the other side sees this and breaks glass all over the floor. In a stunning scene, Kara first fights in agonizing pain on the broken glass and then lays her body down on the glass so that her father can walk on top of her. Watching Kara turn from this demure sweet young daughter to a fighting warrior determined to protect her father at any cost is stirring.
Kara fighting with bleeding feet
The intriguing thing from the viewer’s point of view is that you really don’t know whose side to take in this internecine war. Uncle Hsiong’s children are very honorable – fighting to save their father – and of course Yukari and Kara are two of my all time favorites – but Hsiong started the entire war and as the film progresses his evil ambitions become all too clear. Even his children are only pawns in his thirst for power. On the other side is the wife, Simon and Eddie trying to revenge Chiao, but it soon becomes clear that they are not strong enough to lead the triad. This makes it all fairly interesting. Just don’t expect all of your favorites to still be standing when all the blood settles and the gun smoke clears. 

The only complaint I had was that Frankie Chan who also directs the film focuses a bit too much attention on himself – I would have preferred much more of Yukari and Kara – but even so this film has some excellent action and a number of good one on one fights.

My rating for this film: 7.5

Reviewed by YTSL

Although this 1989 effort is quite a ways from being an absolute masterwork, it does have an excellent action sequence that really has to be seen to be believed; and not just because two of the people in the thick of the pretty intense battle are members of "the weaker sex".  In all honesty, I think that the sensational fierce fight which involves many bodies, guns, knives, a baseball bat, bare knuckles, shoeless as well as shod feet, and broken glass is so good (to watch) that no written description can spoil it or do it justice.  Thus, I'll content myself with stating that:  This remarkable five minute (or thereabouts) segment would have a place in any Hong Kong movie highlights video compilation I were to put together; its featured participant, veteran actress Kara Hui Ying Hung, gained herself another fan here; and a second woman, Yukari Oshima, acquitted herself rather well too.

Yukari and Kara
If only director cum producer Frankie Chan could get himself to look as impressive (and natural) in his starring role in this film.  Better yet, if only he had been content to stay behind the camera.  As it is, BURNING AMBITION goes downhill in quality at precisely the moment that he appears on screen.  It is bad enough that his face is apt to be blanker than Ekin Cheng or George Lam's have ever been.  What's worse is that whatever fight sequences he figures in -- be it a friendly sparring match between him and Yukari Oshima, that which pits him and his gang against Eddie Ko (this being a Hong Kong movie, it isn't only a solitary good guy who finds himself being confronted by many opponents), or one against a "gweilo" mercenary which takes place amidst jingoistic and racist pronouncements by both parties -- is way too obviously choreographed and enacted to make him look good (at the expense of others and also the overall quality of the event).

Another gripe I have involves the director-producer's continuing to introduce new characters into the story even after the movie was already two-thirds along.  Perhaps he felt a need to do this in light of quite a few individuals -- some of whom had looked like they were going to figure way more prominently and longer in BURNING AMBITION than they in fact did -- getting killed even before the film's reaching its half-way mark.  But substituting able actors and actresses (This movie's cast includes the woman -- whose name I do not know -- who portrayed the steely matriarch of one family as well as industry stalwarts like Simon Yam and the late Roy Chiao) with little more than minimally speaking hulking help surely was not the right thing to do.

All this is a particularly great pity because BURNING AMBITION really looked for a while to have the potential to be much more than your standard piece of medium budget production. While nothing else quite approaches the heights of the spectacularly staged -- and poignantly resolved -- first seeking of revenge (on behalf of a triad boss' widow and designated heir) against a rival and his family, the film possesses other standout segments like:  A dramatic confrontation between two brothers with little love for each other (which is made particularly emotionally fraught by its taking place in front of an unwilling witness who they do not know is there in the shadows); a harrowing flashback to a murder remembered by a father and his son; a boardroom showdown between the movie's designated hero and the most obvious villain of the piece; along with a visually cool chase through the tubes and chutes of long waterpark rides (that look like they would be lots of fun to try out!).

Since it contains all that, BURNING AMBITION can hardly be a bad piece of work.  Still, it is somewhat disappointing that a film that (additionally) appeared to have enough gray moral areas and interesting characters to be a very intriguing as well as powerful drama ultimately got reduced to being an action -- as opposed to action-filled -- movie which, if it really were trying to send any social statements, ended up presenting ones -- about the lot of children (vis a vis their parents) and on what grounds friendships and alliances are formed -- too nihilistic and consequently stupid for anyone to seriously consider.

My rating for the film:  7.