The Private Eyes

This is a classic film from the opening shots of the camera silently panning the skyscrapers of Hong Kong and then gravitating down to the street level and suddenly picking up the noise and rhythm of the people – crowds of people going about their lives – and then Sam Hui’s catchy guitar riff suddenly breaking in with “We the poor working people” giving recognition to those who just manage their lives from day to day. It seems to be saying this is where life goes on – far away from the grandeur of mighty buildings – this is the real Hong Kong – people bumping, pushing, eating – trying to get ahead a step at a time.
By the mid-70’s Hong Kong itself was going through the beginning of a transformation that would take it from a somewhat sleepy colonial city that produced and exported inexpensive consumer goods to being one of the major financial hubs in the world. This was a city on the move – finding newfound energy and a sense of identity and purpose and this change was beginning to be reflected in the Hong Kong cinema outside of the martial arts films. Michael Hui who got his start in television (which tended to be more experimental then film at the time) was one of the first to bring this hip, contemporary and irreverent attitude to film.
His comedies dealt with the common man – but by no means the virtuous man. His characters were in a tough rat race and often resorted to whatever means needed to get ahead of the guy next to him. Gone was much of the communal feeling of earlier Cantonese films as it was replaced by a sense of individualism and get ahead capitalism that in fact reflected what Hong Kong itself was migrating to. Michael himself often portrayed the most cynical character though generally by the end he has learned some moral lesson about helping out his fellow man.
By this film, Private Eyes, Hui had worked out some of the rough edges of his earlier films (Games Gamblers Play and The Last Message) and the brothers produced a nearly seamless film that is one of Hong Kong’s greatest comedies. In polls both from critics and from movie fans, this is usually considered one of the most popular films ever made in Hong Kong. It is also an important film (along with Hui’s others) for the contribution it made to revitalize the Cantonese film industry. The Cantonese film industry (films produced in Hong Kong utilizing the local Cantonese dialect) had fallen on hard times and nearly all the films at the time were being produced with Mandarin as the spoken language. The reasons for this were largely economic, as there was a much larger market outside of Hong Kong for Mandarin films than there was within Hong Kong for Cantonese films. The Hui brothers though captured the mentality of Hong Kong in their films and Cantonese was an essential element of that. The films became so popular (both inside and outside of Hong Kong) that within a remarkably short time (along of course with the New Wave, Golden Harvest and Cinema City films) Cantonese films were soon dominant and HK Mandarin films went the way of the dinosaur (though the films were still dubbed for Mandarin speakers). Hui incorporated many influences from the West, but he still maintained (but modernized) many of the Chinese comedy traditions such as the buddy film.
By today’s post Stephen Chow/Wong Jing standards, Hui’s comedy may feel a bit tame and perhaps too restrained, but it has a wonderful dry humor, human warmth, constant sly cleverness and such a sense of good nature that it is difficult not to enjoy it. Hui never overdoes it in a scene – there are times you think he could have gone longer with a routine – milked it for a few more laughs – but he prefers ending it to overstaying its welcome. This film has a number of images/routines that have become part of the fabric of Hong Kong film – the image of Michael battling in buck teeth and armed with sausage nunchakas, his face covered with spotted flour, falling back into the pool as he tries to check out a beautiful girl, the chicken/cooking/exercise routine – but the film has other excellent ones as well – from something as small as getting toothpaste out of a tube to Sam completely wrecking a car bit by bit in a chase.
The film is basically made up of a series of cases and misadventures by a private eye (Mannix Detectives) and his two assistants – Sam Hui and Ricky Hui. All three take on very distinct personalities that they were to maintain to some extent throughout their film careers – Michael the fast talking, fast thinking cynical manipulator, Sam the good hearted open one that the women liked with kung fu skills to boot and Ricky the woeful not very bright one. The cases are all small  - retrieving a TV set, catching a shop lifter, getting evidence on cheating husbands/wives and a group of movie theater robbers (headed by Shek Kin), but within this framework the Hui brothers are able to create some lovely comical moments. Much of the pleasure of the film is simply in the low-key chemistry between the three brothers - a stare, a look, a slow burn.
How well this film has weathered the past quarter of a century is difficult to determine for others. Since it was made in 1976, the style of comedy has become rougher, faster and more obvious in many ways and often provides more immediate gratification. Hui’s comedy is subtler and gentler – full of lovely still or quiet moments - and at least for me this film and the Hui humor has well stood the test of time.

We the poor working people
Getting ulcers running around
Chicken feed is our reward
Rough deal is what we get

The boss is ever ready to explode
His barks are long, his face longer
When we ask for a raise
Brother you’re in for a treat

Working like a dog
Things keep going wrong
Why don’t we grab a gun and hold em up
At least making our efforts worthwhile

We the poor working people
Slaves to money for life
Our misery it’s unspeakable
But we don’t take it for granted

Happiness is not ours to share
Suffering is ours to bear
A little more is a little more
We care at least to make our effort worthwhile

It’s tit for tat
Tit for tat


My rating for this film: 8.5

DVD Information:

Distributed by Universe

The transfer is quite good considering its age - but there are signs of wear and it is a bit soft - but still overall quite satisfactory. The reviews on the Asian DVD Guide mention that some musical bits from other films - Enter the Dragon and Jaws - were removed - no doubt for copyright infringement reasons.


8 Chapters

Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks

The subtitles are Chinese or English.

There are trailers for The Last Message, Games Gamblers Play and Teppanyaki.

There are bios on Sam and Michael