John Woo is best known in the West for his “heroic bloodshed” movies from the ‘80s in which melancholy tough guys shoot bullets at each other in beautiful ways. However, he had a long and varied career even before which began with Shaw Brothers and a stint in traditional martial arts movies. What often gets over looked outside of Woo’s native Hong Kong is his many comedies, of which The Pilferer’s Progress (AKA Money Crazy, 发钱寒, Fa Qian Han) is one of his most successful.
The plot follows the comic adventures of two down on their luck hoodlums – would be bodyguard Poison (Ricky Hui) and “private detective” Dragon (Richard Ng Yiu hon), who keep running into each other so many times that they eventually end up having to become a team. After each becoming involved with the greedy business man Rich Chan (Cheung Ying), the two find themselves lusting after a set of three diamonds which he has in his possession. Their desire only grows after meeting Mary (Angie Chiu) and her godfather to whom the diamonds originally belonged before Chan cheated him out of them.
Love trumps money, at least for a while, as Poison and Dragon team up to get revenge on Chan and get the diamonds back for Mary. Of course, more personal concerns end up raising their heads towards the end as the duo realise that if they just give the diamonds back to Mary it might buy them some brownie points but they’ll be quite massively out of pocket. They come up with a suitably anarchic solution that involves dummies holding guns and a motorbike cleverly concealed inside a haystack not to mention a fake broken arm (unsurprisingly it doesn’t go quite as smoothly as they’d hoped).
Much more slapstick buddy comedy than crime thriller, The Pilferer’s Progress is full of innovative sight gags and the fast paced Cantonese wordplay that has become a hallmark of the genre. Neither Poison nor Dragon are born criminal masterminds, they’re both just muddling through with a kind of anarchic insouciance that lends their exploits a gleefully childish quality even when Dragon is doing something as shady as indulging in a bit of analogue photoshop to fabricate a picture of Chan with a mistress so he can blackmail him. Poison’s number one manoeuvre is to get a gang together to pretend to attack his target so he can pretend to fight them all off in the hope that the “victim” will be so grateful and impressed with his martial arts skills that he’ll take him on as a bodyguard.
Dragon seems to be an avid watcher of modern spy movies and has a host of fairly useless gadgets he can use to try and get the drop on Chan such as bugging his car (Poison puts the bug on the exhaust pipe), or drilling a hole from the kitchen below right into Chan’s toilet and sticking a periscope up there to scout out the room. Chan also has a fairly elaborate security system that he mostly uses to annoy his wife but Poison and Dragon get round it by drilling another, bigger hole in the ceiling and pulling a Mission Impossible style rope manoeuvre to try and grab the diamonds from around Chan’s neck while he’s asleep. Because he’s thought of everything, Dragon even pulls out a tiny umbrella and hangs it from his nose to catch the increasing stream of sweat falling from his brow in one of the film’s funniest moments.
Woo also mixes quite a lot of exciting kung-fu action with the pure comedy as Chan’s second bodyguard is a recently graduated shaolin monk who’s pretty much invincible – to normal people, but somehow Dragon and Poison manage to outsmart him every time. There’s also a fair amount of the gunplay that was to become Woo’s signature but there are no balletic sequences here – the guns look ridiculously fake, almost like children’s toys, and are always the “butt” of the joke, literally.
The Pilferer’s Progress may not be a great lost classic but it is heaps of period specific fun with an extremely catchy soundtrack including the title song sung by star Ricky Hui. Extraordinarily successful on its original release, The Pilferer’s Progress is undoubtedly very much of its time, as perhaps it was intended to be, but its fast paced, silly slapstick humour has a universal quality that proves that true comedy has no sell by date.
Seen as part of HOME’s CRIME: Hong Kong Style touring season.