Cheung Ying

Blood Money (血染黃金)

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If you ever need an antidote to the Gordon Gecko mantra, “Greed is good,” you can be sure to find one in the Union Studios vaults. The company’s top leading men, Ng Cho-Fan and Cheung Ying, are paired alongside a cast of sturdy second line actors and the brilliant Mui Yee in Blood Money, a slow-cooked thriller that warns against the lust for riches.

Adapted from Hong Kong writer Yuen Long’s novel The Story of Swallowing Gold (吞金記), the movie opens during World War II. Scarface Lee (Ng Cho-Fan), a Chinese stooge for the Japanese, convinces a group of prisoners under his charge to steal a chest of gold from the occupying soldiers. The theft goes off swimmingly, but problems arise when the gang of eight has to decide what to do with the money and how to make it back home.

The film offers several portraits of greed, the most unscrupulous of which comes in the form of Scarface Lee. He bullies his way into position and casually dispenses with anyone he finds meddlesome. Ng Cho-Fan, in a role that sharply contrasts with his moralizing father figure characters, wears despicable well, his wiry mustache perched stiffly over a toothy smile.

Meanwhile, Scarface’s wife Mimi (Mui Yee) proves to be a formidable partner. Mui Yee imbues her character with a tempered seductiveness that counters Scarface’s overt malevolence. Her Mimi is a little more patient but no less greedy and conspires equally with her husband and her lover (Lee Ching). Mui is typecast here but manages to convey her character’s cunning with little more than a sidelong glance and a puff on her cigarette.

Blood Money’s agenda, however, is best embodied by Tong (Cheung Ying), the most sensible of the group and the one with whom the audience is meant to identify. He recognizes the absurdity of hoarding the gold when the group first finds itself stranded on a mountain and more in need food more than of money. It is Tong who proclaims that it would be better to split rice than gold, especially as they rest in the shadow of war.

Yet as the gold itself becomes a character, he begins to lose perspective and ignores the protestations of his wife, Ying (Siu Yin-Fei). She is the moral core of the story and insists that they could be content with the fruits of their hard work. Tong is lured by the game of greed and grows convinced that he is not getting his fair share.

The movie never hides its argument about avarice and is more interesting as a character study than a cautionary tale. And while the manifestations of greed vary in subtlety and thus perhaps effectiveness, the strength of the actors still makes this an engaging film.

Released: 1957
Dir: Chu Kei 珠璣
Writer: Yuen Long 阮朗
Original Story: Yuen Long 阮朗
Cast: Ng Cho-Fan 吳楚帆; Cheung Ying 張瑛; Mui Yee 梅綺; Lee Ching 李清; Siu Yin-Fei 小燕飛; Wong Cho-San 黃楚山; Geung Chung-Ping 姜中平; Ng Tung 吳桐; Lee Pang-Fei 李鵬飛
Time: 107 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2013

Wonderful Partners (雞鳴狗盜)

Greed, theft, extortion, adultery, usury, and property developers – the makings of a true Hong Kong movie. While some things have changed since this film’s 1960 release – one rarely breaks and enters by shimmying up a drainpipe, for example, much remains constant. Lovers still engage in dangerous liaisons and Hong Kong real estate continues to lure overseas investors. And another steadfast presence in the city – the poor, who seem perpetually fixed to their lot. It is in this familiar landscape of class injustice that Wonderful Partners lives up to its Union Studio billing. The company, led by cinematic Renaissance man Ng Cho-Fan, famously championed the slogan, “All for one, and one for all,” and that spirit is on full display here. Ng and his very capable Union cohorts Cheung Ying, Yung Siu-Yi, and Tsi Lo-Lin turn out a sometimes preachy but ultimately satisfying comedy based on Si Tak’s (史得) novel of the same name.

Trumpeted as a Robin Hood-esque adventure by the Hong Kong Film Archive, the movie stars Ng as the righteous Brother Seven, who isn’t beyond a little thievery in the name of justice. He decides to help a young couple, Yu (Yung) and her lover Hong (Cheung), though not before sneaking some of their fine jewelry. Yu is a kept woman of Hong’s boss, the crotchety Mr. Chan (Lam Kwun-Shan), and he has forced her to sign an agreement to remain with him. To ensure she complies, he keeps the document locked in a massive vault that happens to sit at the edge of a treacherous cliff. The trio, along with Brother Seven’s sympathetic neighbor Lin (Tsi), concoct a plan to steal it back. What follows is a classic heist refreshingly simple in its execution. The group carries out their scheme with a flurry of diversions, a tool belt, and some serious chutzpah. For an audience addicted to flashy technology, it is riveting to see a break-in unencumbered by night vision goggles, heat detectors, and various other Bond-like gadgets.

The film charges a little too quickly ahead in the third act though and trades some of its smart physical comedy for some Union moralizing, as par for the course. With Chan now on the chase, Brother Seven is willing to go to the extremes to ensure that property developing, women hoarding scoundrels don’t continue to “poison society.” He is righteous to a fault, which is probably the type of person Hong Kong needs more of. The people he fights for are not overly tragic characters; they are folks who simply cannot be because of the greed of others. They must turn to theft to reclaim what is already theirs, and that makes the title so fitting. It roughly translates into resorting to cheap tricks, which is precisely what the poor in Hong Kong, on film and otherwise, must do in order to combat the deceit of the rich.

Released: 1960
Dir: Ng Wui 吳回
Writer: Union Screenwriters and Directors Committee 中聯編導委員會
Original Story: Si Tak 史得
Cast: Ng Cho-Fan 吳楚帆; Cheung Ying 張瑛; Yung Siu-Yi 容小意; Tsi Lo-Lin 紫羅蓮; Lam Kwun-Shan 林坤山; Yip Ping 葉萍; Leung Suk-Hing 梁淑卿; Ng Ka-Lai 吳嘉麗; Shek Sau 石修
Time: 117 min
Lang: Cantonese
Reviewed: 2012