Chasing the Dragon (追龍, Jason Kwan & Wong Jing, 2017)

chasing the dragon posterWhen it comes to Mainland China anything goes so long as you set your movie before 1949. In Hong Kong it seems the same thing is true only the cut off date is 1997. Wong Jing and Jason Kwan’s surprisingly glossy Chasing the Dragon (追龍) follows two giants of 1960s Hong Kong in Crippled Ho whose life was previously brought the screen in 1991’s To Be Number One, and crooked (but only in a nice way) policeman Lee Rock who is played by Andy Lau – the very same part he inhabited in a series of films over 25 years ago. Marking a first time collaboration between martial arts superstar Donnie Yen and veteran leading man Lau, Chasing the Dragon firmly points its finger at the rotten roots of colonial corruption which, apparently, allowed such lawless times to endure in order to reap their copious rewards.

In 1963, Crippled Ho (Donnie Yen) smuggles himself into Hong Kong from the Mainland along with three of his friends and his little brother Peter. The boys find it hard to get honest work and are largely existing as hired muscle – or rather they’re supposed to get paid $30 to stand at the back make the local gangster’s gang look more impressive than it really is. One fateful day they get hired by Will, Grizzly Bear’s fixer, to hang around at a supposed confrontation with rival gangster Comic only this time the fight, which has been organised to put a damper on the birthday celebrations of crooked police chief Ngan, breaks out for real. Crippled Ho and the guys are skilled fighters who’d really rather avoid getting involved so they steal some police uniforms and try to escape by blending in but they’re caught by vicious British cop Hunter (Bryan Larkin) and nearly beaten to death before being rescued by the less corrupt Lee Rock (Andy Lau).

This first confrontation sets the tone for the remainder of the film as Crippled Ho, a vicious, ruthless, and ambitious gangster is repeatedly plagued by Hunter – the typically racist, corrupt, incompetent, greedy, and amoral sort which seems to define British officialdom across the Empire. Empire is the big enemy here (though it’s easy enough for one Empire to stand in for another) as pictures of the Queen reign supreme and men like Hunter think they can do whatever they like because colonial life is cheap. Lee Rock knows his place with the system and is content to play it. He warns Ho that pretty much anything goes, but the Brits are off limits because it’s the authorities that are bankrolling this illicit economy and any attempt to bite the hand that feeds threatens to bring the entire system crashing down.

As revealed in Ho’s opening voice over, ’70s Hong Kong was a haven of corruption in which the authorities collaborated with the Triads partly as a way of appeasing them but also as a way to make money. Unlike his incorruptible buddy, Lee Rock is as corrupt as they come – setting himself a target of $500 million and becoming actively involved in the drugs trade. He does, however, have his limits and makes sure to always play within the “rules”. The rules go awry when Rock decides to try deposing an unpredictable gang leader in favour of a more stable one and gets trapped inside Kowloon Walled City only for Ho to come to his rescue in answer of their debt of loyalty.

Despite their positions at opposite ends of the spectrum, Lee Rock and Crippled Ho generate a genuine brotherhood during the ten years which see their ascent to the top of the Hong Kong criminal tree. The launch of ICAC in 1974 which aims to eradicate corruption across the board threatens to bring the party to an end with its obvious desire for efficacy in refusing to hire the same old stooges who will do nothing, and actually arresting some of the most notorious abusers of power. Wong and Kwan end the film with a frankly ridiculous statement that thanks to ICAC and the retreat of the British, corruption has now been completely eradicated from Hong Kong along with colonial rule. Yet, in keeping with censorship guidelines, both Rock and Ho are allowed to appear in an epilogue sequence in which they have an emotional conversation revealing the ways crime has not paid for them in the way they hoped it might.

Dripping with period detail and thankfully reining in some of the more outlandish elements and unwise comedy Wong is often known for Chasing the Dragon is also a surprisingly bloody affair as ears are sliced off, severed heads appear in boxes, and the gang engage in a series of action packed set pieces many of them set in the famed Walled City. Yen and Lau play two sides of the same game while their intense bond is shaken by the need for revenge and a suspicion of betrayal. Wong Jing redeems himself with the assistance of the ever reliable Kwan in a star studded tale of corrupt yet noble criminals daring to rebel against oppression by embracing its amoral rules.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

International trailer (dialogue free)

Shock Wave (拆彈專家, Herman Yau, 2017)

shock wave posterRecent Hong Kong action cinema has not exactly been known for its hero cops. Most often, one brave and valiant officer stands up for justice when all around him are corrupt or acting in self interest rather than for the good of the people. Shock Wave (拆彈專家) sees Herman Yau reteam with veteran actor Andy Lau turning in another fine action performance at 55 years of age as a dedicated, highly skilled and righteous bomb disposal officer who becomes the target of a mad bomber after blowing his cover in an undercover operation. These are universally good cops fighting an insane terrorist whose intense desire for revenge and familial reunion is primed to reduce Hong Kong’s central infrastructure to a smoking mess.

Some years prior to the main action, J S Cheung (Andy Lau) is undercover with a gang of bomb loving bank robbers. When they decide to load up a few taxis with explosives, Cheung just can’t let innocent people and fellow officers get caught in the crossfire and so he blows his cover and tips the cops off to the weaponised motor vehicles. Head honcho of the gang, Blast (Jiang Wu), is not best pleased especially as his younger brother Biao (Wang Ziyi) gets himself arrested. Flash forward to the present day and Blast has come up with his plot for revenge – placing large amounts of explosives in the Cross Harbour Tunnel and taking everyone in the general area hostage until the authorities agree to release his brother and he’s satisfied himself in outwitting Cheung.

In this at least Shock Wave fits neatly into the mad bomber genre as Blast goes to great lengths to terrorise the public for irrational and entirely selfish reasons. Blast’s original twin motives centre on a need to get his brother out of prison and the need to destroy Cheung but Biao has decided one of the reasons he quite liked being in prison was that Blast wasn’t there and Cheung isn’t really interested in playing Blast’s game. Blast, as his brother points out, is someone who rarely considers the thoughts or emotions of other people, acting selfishly and assuming his own desires are the only ones which matter. This essential selfishness is echoed in a fairly subtle point about the financial impact of the tunnel crisis and how others stand to profit from it while hundreds people remain terrified and captive inside a giant tube surrounded by water which may soon collapse if Blast loses his temper.

Th mad bomber may be a cinematic staple but Shock Wave relies too heavily on familiar genre elements to make much on an impact of its own. Characterisation is often shallow in the hero cop vs insane criminal set up with supporting characters reduced to a single prominent emotion. The inevitable romantic subplot gives Cheung an emotionally fragile, recently divorced school teacher as an angelic girlfriend only to have her experience sudden qualms about getting involved with someone who does such a dangerous job.

Even if the narrative fails to impress, Yau produces an exciting visual spectacle reportedly spending vast sums of money building an exact replica of the Cross Harbour Tunnel. Filled with explosions, gunfights, and high octane action Yau keeps the tension high by turning the dial right down as Cheung and his gang do their thing with cool, calm military precision disarming everything from C4 to unexploded World War II bombs.  At two hours, Shock Wave is pushing the ideal for an action thriller but largely makes its lengthy running time count despite a number of underdeveloped subplots.

A vehicle for Lau who also takes a producer credit, Shock Wave is defined by his performance as the dashing and heroic member of the bomb disposal squad. Jiang Wu’s mad bomber provides hearty support but is never given much to do other than emphasise his villainy with sneering taunts and occasional acts of cruelty. Cheung’s schoolteacher girlfriend Carmen, played by Song Li, is about as generic as they come seeming only to exist for the classic girlfriend in peril plot device but Song and Lau have good chemistry and the relationship does at least help to up the otherwise absent emotional content. Simply put, Shock Wave is an excuse for the ageing Lau to play the action hero once again and he plays it to the hilt. At times frustratingly formulaic, Shock Wave does manage to maintain the tension until the grippingly explosive finale whilst also paying tribute to those who run towards the crisis rather than away from it in full knowledge of the price they may pay in coming to the defence of ordinary people.


Shock Wave was the closing film of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival and will also be released in UK cinemas from 5th May.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Railroad Tigers (铁道飞虎, Ding Sheng, 2016)

railroad-tigersTrains! They seem to be the latest big thing in Chinese cinema, but at least Railroad Tigers (铁道飞虎, Tiědào Fēi Hǔ) has more rolling stock on offer than the disappointingly CGI enhanced effort which formed the finale of The Vanished Murderer. The latest collaboration between the iconic but ageing Jackie Chan and director Ding Sheng, Railroad Tigers is a kind of western/war movie in which a gang of robin hood style railway bandits decide to get involved with the resistance movement during the ongoing Japanese invasion in 1941. Keeping the action to a minimum and stepping into the background for this comedy ensemble caper, Jackie channels Keaton but makes sure to backup this humorous yarn with a degree of pathos for these fatalistic patriots.

Ma Yuan (Jackie Chan) is a railway worker at a large interstation currently operated by the Japanese. He and his men hatch elaborate plots to raid the incoming supply trains for foodstuffs and Japanese military equipment, but what they’re mostly doing is laughing at their captors rather than actively opposing them. When they return home one day to find a wounded resistance soldier collapsed in their courtyard, the game changes as they decide to help him complete his “secret” mission to blow up a local bridge. Eventually teaming up with a local noodle shop owner who used to be a dashing, sharp shooting hero bodyguard for a defeated warlord, the gang take on the entirety of the Japanese military in Manchuria armed with little more than good humour and hope.

If you were hoping for a nuanced take on the Japanese forces operating in China in the quite climactic year of 1941, you’d best look elsewhere because Railroad Tigers is another bumper outing for the “comedy Kempeitai” who, on the basis of the evidence here provided, could not successfully occupy their own uniforms for any great length of time. Hiroyuki Ikeuchi plays the local commander, Yamaguchi, with the necessary degree of moustache twirling, scenery munching hamminess which the ridiculous set up requires before being joined by the evil and improbable presence of a top female Kempeitai officer, Yuko (Zhang Lanxin), who mostly exists to provide the icy steel so obviously absent from her completely ridiculous countrymen. By and large the gang’s opposition pose very little real threat from the stationmaster who’s always in trouble for smiling too much, to the buffoonish soldier who fails to complete his harakiri because it looks too painful.

Somewhere between the classic western train robbery set piece and the derailment dramas familiar to the resistance movie, Railroad Tigers positions itself as a broad comedy in which it’s slapstick humour rather than high octane thrills which take centre stage. Thus Jackie takes down opponents by jokingly unloading their guns or accidentally knocking them over the side of the train. Enemies are downed as much by trickery as by skill, with several meeting an ignominious end such as being shot in the bum or simply running away. What it lacks in innovative action, Railroad Tigers makes up for with silly comedy set pieces making the most of the real-life father son comradery between Jackie and the recently disgraced Jaycee such as in a slapstick interrogation sequence where they argue about their distinctive noses and which of them is the most handsome.

Wildly uneven in terms of pace, Railroad Tigers takes its time to get moving as we’re introduced to the members of Ma Yuan’s team and their various oppositing counterparts, many of them under drawn in the already crowded rosta. Ding signposts each of the major players with a comic book style illustrated splash featuring names and occupations which is echoed in the stylishly illustrated title sequence and handful of animated segments which follow as well as in the video game style mission heading title cards. Inexplicably, the film begins with a modern day framing sequence of a young boy on a school trip to a train museum in which he wanders off and climbs inside a train, finding the flying tiger marker chalked on the coal hatch. Otherwise redundant and offering little concrete value, the sequence seems only to exist as an excuse for a ten second cameo from one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars. Still, even if far too long, old fashioned in execution and occasionally plagued by substandard CGI, Railroad Tigers does offer enough silly humour and low stakes action to make it fun for all the family, even if guilty of overdoing the patriotic fervour in its lightweight approach to a traumatic era.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wong Jing, 2016)

mission-milanoDespite its title, Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wángpái Dòu Wángpái) spends relatively little time in the Northern Italian city and otherwise bounces back and forth over several worldwide locations as bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung (Andy Lau) chases down a gang of international crooks trying to harness a new, potentially world changing technology. Inspired by the classic spy parodies of old, Wong Jing’s latest effort proves another tiresome attempt at the comedy caper as its nonsensical plot and overplayed broad humour resolutely fail to capture attention.

The film opens with its strongest scene as Andy Lau’s bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung escapes from a Parisian hotel room after being attacked by a machine-gun wielding, cross-dressing French maid. Like much of the rest of the film this sequence is not particularly connected to the subsequent goings on, but on his return to China Hung begins investigating reports that a top technology firm run by the descendants of a famous Robin Hood inspired criminal is about to unveil a new bio product known as Seed of God. During the meeting, the Swedish professor presenting the research is kidnapped by a Japanese vigilante group known as Crescent which Hung believes is working for the evil worldwide organisation KMAX. Teaming up with the tech firm’s CEO Louis Luo (Huang Xiaoming), Luo’s sister (Nana Ouyang), and sidekick (Wong Cho-lam), Hung sets out to retrieve the technology before it falls into the wrong hands.

Seed of God is a bioengineered crop which can flower even if thrown on stony ground. All it needs is water and away you go – instant mango tree wherever and whenever you want. This discovery could end world hunger, but it would also be very bad news for anyone involved in traditional agriculture. Hung and Luo recognise the danger and neither want to see this new technology end up with KMAX who would not be particularly interested in applying it ethically.

Originally reluctant teammates, Hung and Luo build up a buddy buddy relationship through competitive games before eventually agreeing to work together. Luo does most of the hardline fighting while Lau’s Hung backs him up with splapstick-style comic relief. Though often mildly exciting, the action sequences have a comedy vibe dominated by Hung getting thrown into ladies’ bathrooms or knocked back on his behind by a skilled lady assassin while Luo keeps losing his glasses to a particularly mean opponent. Unfortunately, Wong relies heavily on CGI for many of the action set pieces beginning with the obvious rooftops of Paris backdrop, right up to the sports car meets heavy duty lorry incident in the middle and aeroplane based finale.

The humour itself has a heavily retro feel filled with sexist jokes such as Hung crashing into hotel bedroom containing a confused topless woman in the opening sequence and a seduction section in the middle in which a key asset is wooed using her teenage love of Alain Delon and supposed desperation for male attention. Hung is clearly modelled on Bond and even has the agent number 119 though in truth he’s more like Maxwell Smart meets Inspector Gadget with his clean cut nerdiness and ubiquitous trench coat. He even has a Q-style tech specialist (named Bing Bing so we have the “classic” Li vs Fan joke) who’s made him a killer phone with every kind of spy feature conceivable including lightsaber, but can’t actually make a phone call. Add in genre tropes of unusual weaponry and laser filled corridors, and Mission Milano is looking very uninspired.

Despite its Italian destination, Mission Milano employs a frequent musical motif that it is distinctly Spanish – another clue to how all at sea the film is in terms of coherence. A minimal stab at romance between Luo and a friendly agent on the other side, and Hung’s ongoing pining for his ex-wife who left him because his world saving habit was just too stressful, attempt to add some character drama to the piece which remains lukewarm in approach to its cast. Lau turns in an uncharacteristically large performance, grinning and gurning his way through the lacklustre script,  but not even his presence can heal the many problems plaguing the film. Never as funny as it desperately wants to be Mission Milano is a trying experience which, although intermittently amusing, (thankfully) proves instantly forgettable.


Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Cold War (寒戰, Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2012)

cold war

Reworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in June 2013.


Listen up!  You’re going to have to pay attention to this review because there’s an awful lot going on this film. If there were a prize for most subplots squeezed into 102 minutes there wouldn’t even be room for any other candidates on the nominations list. If you like your HK action thrillers super complicated (if a little on the ridiculous side) and filled with some truly explosive (!) action sequences Cold War (寒戰) is definitely up your street.

Whilst a major explosion rocks a busy public area in Hong Kong, a crazed drunk hurtles through the streets before crashing his car into the central reservation in a quite spectacular manner. Apparently unharmed, he then rants at the traffic police that his uncle is a judge so they can’t touch him – a quick phone call seems to indicate he might be mistaken in his uncle’s feelings towards him but in any case the situation changes dramatically as the police are suddenly ambushed and kidnapped. The kidnappers then attempt to ransom the officers and equipment to the HK police authorities who are already a source of some press interest regarding possible corruption and general incompetence. It is imperative that they regain their men and capture the culprits as quickly as possible to avoid their reputation being even further damaged.

However, there is also considerable friction between the leading players at HQ and some uncertainty over who is favoured to become the new police chief – the young bureaucrat or the grizzled street veteran. This situation is further complicated by the fact that one of the missing patrolmen is the son of current section chief MB Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fei). His subordinate, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok), feels this makes him unsuitable to lead the current investigation and so seeks to have Lee removed from his post and take over the position himself. The pair also attract the attention of an officer at ICAC who’s convinced one or both of them must have more to do with the case than it seems, meaning each is effectively fighting a war on three fronts – firstly trying to rescue the police officers, then unmasking the perpetrators and finding out what they want with the HK Police force, and finally sorting out who’s up for the top job at police HQ whilst also keeping Internal Affairs off their backs.

No matter which way you put it Cold War is still extremely convoluted and fails to make all of its various plot elements hang together in a coherent way. It’s also unfortunate that the culprit is a little predictable (largely thanks to the actor’s mustache twirling performance) but when the final reveal does come it’s baffling in its pettiness, not to mention the total implausibility of such a complicated plan. Perhaps its unfair to criticise a film like this for having a problematic plot structure, perhaps fans of the action genre don’t look for finely crafted plotting as much as they look thrills and technically impressive action sequences – after all, we can’t all be Infernal Affairs.

It has to be said that Cold War does deliver in the action stakes with some extremely high production values which surpass even the heights of previous HK action films. From the opening car crash to the motorway car chase and explosive finale there are several simply jaw dropping moments throughout. When it comes to the big and brassy set pieces, Cold War is pretty much unrivaled but perhaps lacks the personal, intimate touch of other genre favourites. Tonally it walks a fine line between a sort of quirky humour and slightly absurd feeling where you can’t be sure whether you’re actually watching a comedy or not – some viewers may find all this a little too silly but others may revel in its ironic tone.

Cold War is certainly a flawed film, a little ridiculous but nevertheless enjoyable. It seems as if it also wants to make serious points about the justice system, media and police force but ends up pulling all its punches. If you stop to think about any of the plot, it makes very little sense but if you can let that go and just enjoy the superb action sequences and great performances from the leads Cold War is definitely one of the more impressive action thrillers to come out of HK in recent years.


 Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

As Tears Go By (旺角卡門, Wong Kar-wai, 1988)

as tears go byThese days, Wong Kar-wai is an international auteur famous for his stories of lovelorn heroes trapped inside their memories, endlessly yearning in vain for the unattainable. In many ways his debut feature, As Tears Go By (旺角卡門, Mongkok Carmen) is little different save that it owes more to its vague heroic bloodshed, gangster inspiration and is less about memory than inevitability and a man abandoning his dreams of a better life with a woman he loves out of mistaken loyalty to his loose cannon friend.

The film opens with Wah (Andy Lau) still in bed despite it being late in the day only to be woken by a voice so piercing it can only belong to an aunty. It seems a mysterious cousin whom he’s never met before will be coming to stay with him as she has something wrong with her lungs and needs to see a specialist in town. Seconds after he puts the phone down the doorbell rings to reveal the cousin, Ngor (Maggie Cheung), standing outside. Slightly put out, Wah goes back to sleep despite the continuous phone calls from his friend, Fly, who is supposed to be collecting a bill but is not having much success. As he will do for the rest of the film, Wah will have to go down there himself and stop Fly making things even worse for everyone than they really needed to be.

For the early part of his career Wong had worked as a scriptwriter (a self confessed hack at times) and was finally given the opportunity to direct his own work as the Hong Kong film industry began to boom in the late ‘80s. This was of course largely due to the fantastically successful action flicks being made at the time including A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, City on Fire etc. so it’s not surprising that he chose the relatively safe arena of genre for his first foray into the director’s chair. His existing connections also enabled him to cast arguably the biggest young stars of the day including Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and Jacky Cheung as his three leads meaning he had pretty much a safe bet on his hands whatever he decided to do. However, even if As Tears Go By is the most straight forward, even commercial, of his films that’s not to say it doesn’t bear many of the hallmarks of his later efforts.

Broadly speaking, As Tears Go By is a fairly standard gangster tragedy much indebted to Scorsese’s Mean Streets as its melancholic hero is caught between loyalty to his friend and the possibility of salvation through the love of a good woman. Fly is a one man disaster zone – a totally useless gangster who can’t take care of himself in a fight yet loves to buzz around irritating the hell out of everyone and starting gang wars over nothing every five seconds. Even the pair’s godfather warns Wah that sooner or later Fly is going to land him in big trouble and it would be better for everyone if they could find him something else to do. Wah seems to agree but is unable to guide his feckless friend away from the fleeting glory of the tough guy world. Wah is already tired of the gangster life, he feels old with it but knows somewhere deep down he’ll never be free. Either out of complete stupidity, mistaken loyalty and a desire for revenge, or just because he doesn’t think he deserves anything else Wah throws away his chance for something better in a pointless, though affecting, gesture of solidarity with Fly.

Shot by Andrew Lau (who would go on to direct his very own genre hit Infernal Affairs also starring Andy Lau only 15 years later), As Tears Go By sparks many of Wong’s consistent visual motifs including the use of slow motion and a persistent melancholic atmosphere which is also filled with tiny moments of contemporary life. Andy Lau makes for a super cool gangster hero in jeans, dark jacket and sun shades, cigarette hanging carelessly from his lips as he wanders about town in a perpetual statue of ennui. Like many of Wong’s subsequent lonely male heroes, he has an inner longing for something which he believes he can never have. Just as the best film noir tough guys do, he warns off his potential romantic salvation which comes in the pleasing form of Maggie Cheung by telling her that, being such as he is, he can promise her nothing because he’s learned never to bother thinking past tomorrow.

Taken on its own merits, As Tears Go By is an interesting addition to the canon of late ‘80s gangster movies which marries the classic tropes of heroic bloodshed with an arthouse aesthetic inspired by both “New Hollywood” classics and genre infused European cinema. Though he’d rarely return to such frenetic action scenes, here Wong shoots with energetic hand held camera and a kind of fury that might give Fukasaku a run for his money. Extraordinarily accomplished for a debut movie, As Tears Go By is very much a youthful feature which is stained with the same kind of unresolvable longing which would come to colour the rest of Wong’s work to date. A stylish genre effort, As Tears Go By is Wong finding his feet, but find them he does and leads us on a characteristically melancholy waltz as he does so.


Reviewed as part of HOME’s CRIME: Hong Kong Style touring season.

Such a pleasure seeing this again and in 35mm! Though there perhaps should have been a warning about how much of the film lacked subtitles (just as well I’d seen it before!).

As Tears Go By was previously released by Tartan in the UK but a word of warning as there was quite a big error involved with the UK edition in that Tartan were given the Mandarin dub of the film rather than the original Cantonese by mistake but opted to rush the film out in conjuction with the release of 2046 rather than fix the problem. Kino Lorber released the film in the US but maybe out of print. The good news is that the Hong Kong edition at least does have English subtitles.

Original trailer (no subs)

I’m not sure if the film’s title actually has anything to do with this song, but As Tears Go By is an appropriately melancholic ballad from The Rolling Stones, here’s a vintage version sung by Marianne Faithfull:

The original Cantonese title is Mongkok Carmen – Mongkok being an area of Hong Kong and Carmen referring to the opera by Bizet which certainly creates an interesting set of allusions!

Shanghai 13 (上海滩十三太保, Shàng Hǎi Tān Shí Sān Tài Bǎo, 1984)

vlcsnap-2015-02-04-17h43m36s189Look at baby Andy Lau!!!

Review of Chang Cheh’s 1984 kung fu extravaganza Shanghai 13 up on UK Anime Network. Out now on UK DVD courtesy of Terracotta Distribution and their new Classic Kung Fu collection!


Shanghai 13 is the second in Terracotta Distribution’s new strand featuring Kung-fu classics. Directed by one of the masters of the genre, Chang Cheh himself who directed such well loved pictures as One Armed Swordsman and The Five Deadly Venoms, Shanghai 13 certainly falls into this category though its charms may be enhanced through the glow of nostalgia. Thin on plot but high on action, Shanghai 13 is not a film to give your brain much of a work out but it will get those fists flying!

Set during the Sino-Japanese war, a government official – mister Ko, has discovered he existence of a secret plot to collaborate with the Japanese. With the help of the famous safecracker Mr Blackhat, Ko obtains the incriminating documents and becomes a prime target for those behind the conspiracy. Mr Ko needs to get to Hong Kong where he can expose the conspiracy to sympathetic forces and enlists the aid of the famous “Shanghai 13” group of outlaws and heroes for protection. However, not all of the 13, it seems, are on his side!

Let’s be honest, not that many people really care about the plot of an action movie which is just as well because the plot of Shanghai 13 is about as thin as they come. Structurally, it’s akin to a video game where Mr Ko and his current protector must face a series of bosses with increasingly impressive fighting prowess in order to “level up” until they finally get Mr Ko to safety. The whistleblowers are the good guys and the people who are trying to stop them are the bad guys. It’s fairly black and white in that everyone on the “right” side is fighting for China and everyone else is either a traitor, Japanese sympathiser or just a soulless mercenary willing to sell out their country for a few coins. If you were looking for the kind of action movie with a nuanced plot, a bit of romance or emotional connection you’d best move along, there’s nothing to see here.

However, if killer action scenes are your bag you’ve come to the right place. Chang Cheh is not a legend for no reason even if Shanghai 13 is not his strongest effort. The film is sort of bookmarked by each of the titular 13 heroes who each have their own outlaw titles and particular fighting style. As usual, Chang has amassed some of his regulars which include some of the most famous names in kung-fu history such as Jimmy Wang Yu, Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng but he’s also made room for a few newcomers like an extremely young Andy Lau! The action scenes maybe fairly episodic but each are well designed and varied thanks to being entered around each of the fighter’s particular skills.  Again, they may not be reinventing anything, but each action sequence is impressively choreographed and exciting in its own right.

Shanghai 13 might not be the best example of its genre but it is certainly a typical one. Very much of its time, its appeal maybe be greater to those who view it through a heavy film of nostalgia but that’s not to say it isn’t often hugely entertaining to first time viewers too. The presentation is fairly pleasing and the disc includes both the original Cantonese language track plus an English dub for those who prefer it. The English subtitles are sometimes a little strange and riddled with obvious grammatical errors but not so much as to make them unintelligible though they may detract from some viewers enjoyment of the film. Shanghai 13 is undoubtedly a lesser offering from the great Chang Cheh, but fans of classic kung-fu are sure to plenty to admire nonetheless.