The Wild, Wild Rose (野玫瑰之戀, Wong Tin-lam, 1960)

A free-spirited nightclub singer’s dreams of love are shattered by fragile masculinity and an unforgiving society in Wong Tin-lam’s take on the classic opera Carmen, The Wild, Wild Rose (野玫瑰之戀, yě méiguī zhī liàn). Where similar films of the era may paint the heroine’s plight as punishment for her subversion of societal norms, Wong’s musical noir implies that perhaps she was too good, too pure-hearted for the increasingly selfish and judgemental society around her while the man she loves is simply too weak to accept her transgressive femininity. 

It’s with the man, Hanhua (Chang Yang), that we first enter the world of the EW Ritz cabaret bar. An “elite” English graduate, Hanhua has fallen on hard times and unable to find teaching work has been forced to take a job he sees as sordid and degrading as a pianist in a nightclub. He and his teacher fiancée Suxin (So Fung), literally the girl next-door, joke about it outside, Hanhua asking her if she’s worried about all the “pretty bad women” in such establishments and pointing at his engagement ring as an amulet of protection against predatory femme fatales. Once inside, however, he’s instantly captivated by the alluring singer, Sijia (Grace Chang), who nevertheless takes against Hanhua because unbeknownst to him he’s displacing her regular piano player, Old Wang (Lui Tat), who’s being let go by the greedy boss for showing up late because his wife is seriously ill. 

Unable to accept such callous behaviour, Sijia tries to use her position to speak up on Wang’s behalf and almost loses her own job in the process while irritating her stage rival and the boss’ squeeze Meimei (Shen Yun). While Meimei sings a quiet romantic ballad on the dance floor, Sijia embarks on a crowd-pleasing, gender-bending routine in the bar which proves both that she is the star in this establishment and that she can bend the crowd to her will turning them on whoever she sees fit. After a fight breaks out, Hanhua finds himself physically restraining Sijia to prevent her from stabbing Meimei with an icepick. Though this originally annoys her, Sijia is quite clearly turned on watching Hanhua fight off all of the other men who rose up to defend her honour. Once he is wounded, she again asserts her authority by calling them off and proceeding to flirt with Hanhua who leaves with Suxin vowing never to return. 

But as Old Wang had said, it’s tough to find a job these days and faced with his mother’s excitement about his new career prospects Hanhua has no choice but continue working at the Ritz. We can perhaps tell something of Hanhua’s background from the interior of his home which though modest has a large classical portrait on one wall and is otherwise neat and well organised. He evidently envisaged a conventional middle-class life for himself and is humiliated to have been reduced to a mere piano player in a backstreet bar, the kind of place that he sees as sordid and dangerous and would not ordinarily think of himself visiting. He sees Sijia in much the same way but perhaps stops short of admitting her danger, refusing to look at her or only with contempt while furiously denying his barely controlled desires of the kind which were perhaps unleashed by the fight at the bar. 

Yet all the qualities which attract her to him are the ones he eventually wants to destroy in her rebellious goodness and refusal to follow the unjust rules of her society. She tells him point blank not only in her song but repeatedly to his face that she is a fickle woman who believes there are no good men and is essentially in this only for a good time for as long as it lasts. In fact, her interest in him largely stemmed from a bet with a guy at the bar that she couldn’t seduce him in 10 days, stung by his rough rejection of her after the fight. But Hanhua is too conventional a man to understand or accept her. He gives in to his desires after discovering that she slept with a rich man only to get the money for a life saving operation for Old Wang’s wife, witnessing her self-sacrificing goodness and therefore deciding that she is “worthy” of him after all. Ultimately he expects her to play the role of a conventional housewife, refusing to allow her to continue singing in nightclubs even while he is unable to find another job having served time in prison for bludgeoning her abusive ex. His fragile masculinity had also caused him to blow up at Suxin when she went to the headmaster at her school and asked him to give Hanhua a less degrading job, humiliated to have a woman beg for him just he is humiliated to be supported by Sijia and especially by her doing a job he thinks is somehow improper. 

It is not Sijia who ruins Hanhua, but Hanhua himself and the toxicity of conventional social codes that feed into his sense of resentment. His obsessive desire to possess Sijia, to dominate and tame her, drives him to drink and uselessness to the point he completely degrades himself, pathetically pleading with Sijia not to leave, prepared to allow her to return to work or even take other lovers if only she does not abandon him. Sijia meanwhile is in a sense tamed by her love for Hanhua in that she decides that love is sacrifice, that she must live a more conventionally proper life as Hanhua’s wife and eventually that she must separate from him in order to preserve his future. In this she is redeemed in the eyes of Suxin and Hanhua’s mother who realise that she is a good woman who genuinely cared for Hanhua, but is finally done in by her goodness. Her morality cares nothing for properness and all for humanity, her kindness to Old Wang and her best friend eventually repaid while all Hanhua can think of is a redemption of his masculinity through violence driven just like Don José to the peak of madness in obsessive love. But there’s more than just inevitable tragedy in Sijia’s fate, there is a deep sense of injustice and that Hanhua’s actions were as much about stifling her transgressive goodness as they were about vindicating himself as a man which in any case is only pathetic in its unrighteousness. Masterful in its musicality, Wong’s romantic noir positions its heroine as dangerous but only because she is better than the world around her and the world around her knows but does not want to see. 


The Wild, Wild Rose screens in Amsterdam on 27th/29th/31st October as part of this year’s Imagine Fantastic Film Festival.

Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者, Wong Jing, 1982) [Fantasia 2022]

A former mercenary’s bid for revenge having failed in his responsibilities soon goes awry in Wong Jing’s third directorial feature Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者). As is constantly pointed out to the hero, perhaps he’s not so different from his target with his very selective brand of justice and morality. After all maybe the difference between medicine smuggler and drug trafficker is largely semantic and taking revenge after the fact hardly makes up for the failure to protect the innocent from a world you’ve helped create. 

Li Lok (Ti Lung) is a pretty big figure on the underworld scene and as the ultra macho title sequence reveals a former mercenary who served in Vietnam. In the daring opening scene he sneaks into a gang hideout disguised as a telephone repairman and takes out a gangster in the middle of drugging a young woman whom he and his friend intend to rape and then murder. But Li Lok isn’t here to save the girl and in fact he doesn’t. He’s there because the gangster has done this kind of thing before and the previous victim was his 15-year-old niece whose care he had been entrusted with by his late brother before he passed away. Later one of his comrades will make a similar request of him and he will fail again apparently taking little stock of his responsibilities. 

Nevertheless, having knocked off the gangster annoys local big boss Shen who intends to have Li Lok eliminated but Hong Kong’s richest woman Ho Ying (Candice Yu On-On) convinces him not to because she has a job for Lok assassinating a top Thai assassin who killed her father and is now apparently blackmailing her with a cassette tape full of corporate secrets. All Lok needs to do is round up a posse and head to Cambodia where “the devil” Naiman (Ching Miao) is hiding out, kidnap him, and retrieve the tape to receive a massive life-changing payout while permanently getting Shen off his back. It all sounds like a pretty good deal to Lok along with the former buddies he recruits to join him who are all trapped in desperate poverty one with a sick little girl who desperately needs a kidney transplant. 

This is a Wong Jing film and perhaps there’s no need to dig too deeply into it, but there is something in the power Ying wields over Lok and his team by virtue of her wealth and privilege that speaks to the city’s growing inequality though it’s also true that perhaps the guys have all fallen low through their mercenary choices and are now unable to get a foothold in the contemporary society without resorting to crime. Yet perversely, Ying leverages Lok’s chivalrous sense of honour as part of her plan playing damsel in distress rather than dangerous femme fatale while he assumes he’s on a righteous mission planning to turn Naiman over to the authorities rather than just killing him while little caring that his actions threaten to destabilise an already chaotic situation in Cambodia. 

When one of the sworn brothers of the gangster that Lok killed in revenge is killed coming after him even after the truce, Lok is irritated that he died unnecessarily as if it offends his sense of justice that this man was not protected better by Shen. Yet as Naiman keeps pointing out to him, he’s no saint and perhaps no different. He could have saved the girl in the gang hideout but chose not to, escaping by jumping out of a window onto a van waiting below and riding off on a motorcycle (which is admittedly impressive). He claims to hate drug dealers but profited off war and misery in smuggling medicines across the border from Thailand into Cambodia even if he could tell himself he was running a kind of humanitarian service. Meanwhile Ying who is obviously involved in something shady if she’s dealing with people like Lok and his team, paying for their weapons and equipment which presumably includes the series of identical outfits the guys sport like some violent middle-aged boy band, wins an Outstanding Woman award and ironically pledges to use some of her wealth to fund community-based anti-drug programs. 

Li Lok may in a sense emerge victorious but also exactly where he started in failing to protect an innocent girl from a mercenary world. The Cantonese title might more literally be something like Devil Hunters, but Lok and his guys are certainly a mercenary bunch desperate to escape their poverty and hopelessness even if they may stand for a kind of justice and honour in brotherhood. This being a Wong Jing film there is plenty of crass humour including some that is very of its time along with gratuitous sex and female nudity but also a series of incredibly impressive action scenes and a bleaker than bleak conclusion which may suggest that the Loks of the world will be unable to protect the next generation from the violence they themselves have unleashed. 


Mercenaries from Hong Kong screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Teahouse (成記茶樓, Kuei Chih-Hung, 1974)

TheTeaHouse+1974-248-bWhere oh where are the put upon citizens of martial arts movies supposed to grab a quiet cup of tea and some dim sum? Definitely not at Boss Cheng’s teahouse as all hell is about to break loose in there when it becomes the centre of a turf war in gloomy director Kuei Chih-Hung’s social minded modern day kung-fu movie The Teahouse (成記茶樓, Cheng Ji Cha Lou).

Wang Cheng runs a small teahouse which prides itself on being the kind of progressive environment where everyone looks after each other as long as they play by the rules. Unfortunately, one of his young guys – Blackie, fresh off the boat from the mainland, has got himself into bad company and into trouble with the law. However, as he’s a minor, he gets off with barely any punishment at all. Cheng tells him he can stay at the teahouse only if he pays properly for his crime leading him to try and get himself arrested all over again so he can go to jail (which actually proves very difficult).

Another unfortunate side effect of Blackie’s adventure is that it brings some unwanted gangster attention and when two young thugs come looking for one of the waitresses, Boss Cheng is not going to stand for any nonsense. However, after his attempts to help the girl have failed, he finds himself in trouble with two different sets of gangsters and also a meddling police inspector who seems intent on using the teahouse to trap the triads.

Boss Cheng is a good and decent man but also someone with his own opinions on justice who is not afraid to take matters into his own hands. His rules for workers at the teahouse emphasise obeying the law and behaving like responsible citizens, but he’s not above carrying out a little corrective action of his own if the need arises.

The biggest theme of the film is the rising inequality and place of migrants from the mainland in contemporary Hong Kong society but the first target Kuei has his sights set on is out of control youth. Because of the lenient laws regarding child criminality, the young men of Hong Kong run rampant, safe in the knowledge that nothing is going to happen to them while they remain under the age of responsibility. The two gangsters accused of raping and attempting to force the teenage waitress at the teahouse into prostitution give their ages as 14 and 15 respectively to the trial judge and are released without charge to go back to their life of crime with impunity and no respect for the law or conventional morality. Sadly, this system just creates another child criminal but one who will receive a jail sentence even if a lighter one to be served in a reform school rather than a prison.

Blackie was seduced into crime by a lack of funds – having managed to make it over from the mainland he has nothing other than his job at the teahouse and the support of Boss Cheng. One day a ragged looking little boy leading his sister by the hand wanders into the teahouse to beg for food. It turns out his small family escaped from the mainland too but his father never made it to Hong Kong and his mother is ill, leaving the children to try and fend for themselves. Boss Cheng takes pity on them and gives the boy a job plus paying for his school fees but he still finds himself beaten up by thugs not much older than himself in the street.

All the while, corrupt fat cats are messing with the system to keep the poor in their place while the rich get richer. Cheng takes great pleasure in playing off a corrupt industrialist who tried to use him as a sacrificial pawn in his own war against the triads (well, the triads he doesn’t like, anyway). Amusingly, one of the triad bosses seems to think Cheng is also a brother forcing him to pretend to know all about triad rituals to attempt to make a truce with them. The teahouse is situated right between the territories of two rival gangs making it a prime spot for conflict. However, the real problem comes when the police start muscling in, giving off the impression that Cheng has turned traitor on the triads. Soon, Cheng becomes the single biggest threat to his own teahouse and the progressive environment he hoped it would foster.

The Teahouse is actually a little ahead of its time concentrating not on kung fu or street fighting but mixing in a little gun play and some bloody knife crime. The shooting style is impressive throughout with a realistic, gritty atmosphere which aims to put the real streets on screen. The film does, however, have a tendency to fall into an episodic rhythm and suffers from its abrupt and slightly odd, downbeat ending which finishes things on an unsatisfying note. That said, The Teahouse is a stylishly shot and socially engaged action extravaganza that makes up for its minor shortcomings with a degree of chutzpah which looks forward to the classic heroic bloodshed movies of the ‘80s.


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

Unsubtitled trailer (Mandarin):