old Hong Kong movies

Police Woman (女警察) (1973)

Police Woman will be forever branded as a Jackie Chan film, which is a damn shame because it’s not. Though once retitled Rumble in Hong Kong, an allusion to one of the actors’ most famous films, Rumble in the Bronx, for an American release, this is really a Yuen Qiu movie. Yuen, perhaps most famous for her role as the cantankerous landlord in Kung Fu Hustle, was part of the Seven Little Fortunes troupe, a group of young performers that included Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Wah. They trained at the Beijing opera school, China Drama Academy, under Yu Jim Yuen. Like her contemporaries, Yuen found some early success in movies as an actor and stuntwoman, but unlike her classmates, her career never really took off and she retired after marrying. I wonder why.

The film industry, and sexism, done her wrong, but at least we can revisit her early work thanks to Netflix (well, Hong Kong Netflix). Yuen (credited as Lin Qiu) plays Inspector Ho Mai-Wa, the titular police woman in the film. Mai-Wa is trying to figure out why her sister, Mai-Fong (Hu Chin), ended up poisoned to death in the back of a cab. She teams up with the driver, Chan Kin (Charlie Chin, or Chow Yun-Fat’s Taiwanese twin), and they battle it out with some Mainland gangsters who are caught up in a drug smuggling operation. One of those thugs is nameless Jackie Chan character, a kid whose distinguishing feature is a huge mole that he really needs to get checked out.

Yuen appears briefly in the beginning of the movie, appropriately kicking some ass while undercover, but then disappears as Kin’s story takes over. The gangsters chase him down, beating and harassing him because they think Mai-Fong hid some evidence in his cab that could incriminate them. They keep going on about a purse and can’t take the hint that he has no idea where Mai-Fong might have stashed it. Kin’s the reluctant hero, an innocent, somewhat unwilling participant in all this. His mild manner makes him easy to like, but he’s a college-educated cab driver, not a fighter, and the action always seems to swirl around him.

Things pick up when Mai-Wa shows up, and she and Kin do a little more of the pursuing. This leads them to the gangsters’ hideout and a showdown in which they get help from another woman and Kin’s cab buddies. Mai-Wa doesn’t talk much, but there’s no doubt about who is leading things. Yuen is studied and smart as the inspector, a woman who is used to navigating a man’s world and does so successfully by laying low and being very competent.

In fact, all the women in this film possess the same guile. They are the most interesting characters because of what they have to hide. Mai-Fong, it turns out, is an associate of the gang, drawn into the criminal life in part by her laziness according to her sister. Sao Mei (Betty Pei Ti) is as well. Both are more than the kept or wronged woman. They make decisions of great consequence and courage that end up costing at least Mai-Fong her life. The actors do as much as they can with their brief screen time. The film moves at swift pace, and there’s little attempt to bulk up the narrative or characterization. Even the fight scenes have an economical and perfunctory quality, though they are still fine.

Alt Title: 師哥出馬, The Young Tiger, Rumble in Hong Kong, The Heroine, Here Comes Big Brother
Released: 1973
Dir: Chu Mu 朱牧
Action Dir: Jackie Chan 成龍, Yuen Cheung-Yan 袁祥仁
Writer: Chu Mu 朱牧, Ngai Hoi-Fung 魏海峰
Cast: Yuen Qiu 元秋, Charlie Chin Chiang-Lin 秦祥林, Lee Man-Tai 李文泰, Hu Chin 胡錦, Chiang Nan 姜南, Jackie Chan 成龍, Helena Law Lan 羅蘭, Fung Ngai 馮毅, Betty Pei Ti 貝蒂, Go Yeung 高揚
Time: 80 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018

The Young Boss of the Factory (工廠少爺) (1963)

The alternate title for this 1963 film is Fun in the Factory, and it appropriately describes the first half of the movie, which plays out like a workplace romp. Wong Bun Kap (Cheung Ying-Choi) has just returned from studying abroad and is ready to take his place in the workforce. Since his dad (Lee Pang-Fei) is also the chairman of a company, however, his plans, at least for now, look a lot like whatever Dad has in mind, and Dad wants him to gain some experience on the factory floor before he can move up in the company. If only Hong Kong tycoons could have some of whatever Papa Wong’s having. Dad explicitly says that Ah Kap has had it too easy his whole life and that the boy needs to understand the value of hard work, to which I say, amen.

Not only does Ah Kap totally agree that he’s a coddled rich kid, but he goes all in when his dad suggests that he join the company as a regular factory hand. He’ll live with one of the maids, posing as her nephew, and take on a new name, Chin Tung-Yuen. Since no one has seen Ah Kap since he was a kid, he won’t have a problem when mingling with the hoi polloi.

The plan sounds sensible enough, and it is for a good while. Word leaks out that the boss’s son is among the newest batch of employees, and suddenly everyone’s hot on the game. The ladies saddle up with the fellas and try to figure out if their beau is filthy rich, while the men eye each other suspiciously, unsure if the guy buying drinks can afford a few more rounds. Ah Kap almost gets outed when he doesn’t know what butter toast is, but his female colleague, Tsui Wan (Lam Fung), is confident he is not the favored son when she visits his humble home.

There isn’t much to the story besides this guessing game, and once the novelty wears down, so does the energy. There are a few subplots that get more mileage than they probably should. Wong’s subordinate (Cheung Kwun Min) goes the distance to try to out Ah Kap, going so far as to enlist his goddaughter’s help. One of the factory hands, Yee Keung (Cheung Ching), gets mistaken for the boss’s son and exhausts himself trying to prove otherwise. Cheung has a charismatic presence, and it wouldn’t have hurt to see him in an expanded role.

There’s a lot of potential for physical comedy and wit that’s wasted, and what might be a fun, buzzy film fizzles. The cast can only do so much to keep lighting fires, though Lam Fung does a damn good job with her eyes alone. Cheung Ying Choi is an affable presence, but he fades along with the script. The film gives its audience a little to chew on as a study in character and identity. Anyone who’s had a job will recognize the way colleagues try to try to size one another up based on a person’s proximity to the boss. Too bad this adventure couldn’t be more exciting than real life.

Alt Title: Fun in the Factory
Released: 1963
Prod: Sit Siu-Cheong 薛兆璋
Dir: Lo Yu-Kei 盧雨岐
Writer: Lo Yu-Kei 盧雨岐
Cast: Cheung Ying-Choi 張英才, Lam Fung 林鳳, Cheung Ching 張清, Lee Pang-Fei 李鵬飛, Kwan Hoi-San 關海山, Tam Sin-Hung 譚倩紅, Cheng Kwun-Min 鄭君綿, Sai Gwa-Pau 西瓜刨, Lee Heung-Kam 李香琴
Time: 108 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018

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