Philip Yung’s first film since the acclaimed Port of Call was scheduled for release all the way back in 2018 only to be repeatedly held up by troubles with the censors later compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. For many reasons, it isn’t surprising that Where the Wind Blows (風再起時) would run into trouble with the current censorship regime dealing as it does with the touchy subject of police corruption albeit it in the colonial era, but the most surprising thing may be that it was passed at all given the subversive undertones of a late speech delivered by the voice of reason, ICAC chief George Lee (Michael Hui Koon-man), whose attack on the corrupt practices of the British authorities has obvious parallels with the modern day.
The film is however set firmly in the past ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s and inspired by the “Four Great Sergeants” of post-war Hong Kong who amassed great personal wealth while working as police officers. Once again, the police is just the biggest gang, or perhaps the second biggest given that the great racket in town is the colonial rule. It is indeed the British authorities who have enabled this society founded largely on systemised corruption, something which as Lee points out they are unwilling to deal with because it suits them just fine and they have no real interest in the good of Hong Kong.
In any case, flashy cop Lok (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) started out as an earnest bobby before the war who was shocked by the institutionalised corruption all around him and refused to participate in it. But his law abiding nature only made him a threat to other officers who needed him to be complicit in their crimes to keep them safe. After several beatings, he ended up accepting the culture of bribery just to fit in. In the present day, he and likeminded detective Nam (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) justify their dubious methods under the rationale that they’re helping to “manage” triad society by effectively licensing the gangs in taking protection money to leave the chosen few alone while enriching themselves in the process.
Then again, the balance of triad society is disrupted by the arrival of a bigger Mainland outfit which later ends up backing Lok, with the assistance of his Shanghainese wife (Du Juan), to place him in a position which is the most beneficial to themselves. To quell riots by supporters of the KMT in 1956, Nam lies to the protestors that he secretly supports their cause and that if they do not disperse there is a chance the British Army will forcibly disperse them which he also describes as an inappropriate outcome because this is a matter that should be settled among the Chinese people not by foreigners. In the final confrontation with ICAC chief Lee, the British authorities rule out military or police action, though the rioters in that case are in fact policeman angry about increasing anti-corruption legislation. Ironically enough, Lee’s speech advocates for something similar to that which Nam had suggested, essentially saying that the Hong Kong people should decide their own future and that society in general should be more mindful as to the kind of Hong Kong their children and grandchildren will eventually inherit.
In any case, the four sergeants are soon eclipsed by changing times while Lok and Nam are mired in romantic heartbreak in having fallen for the same woman who brands Nam an over thinker and implies she may have married Lok less out of love than in the knowledge he’d be easy to manipulate. For his part, Lok is damaged by wartime trauma which has left him cynical and nihilistic while filled with regret and longing for a woman he lost during the war in part because he did not have the money to pay for medical treatment which might have saved her. In this sense, it’s money that is the true corrupting force in a capitalist society in which, as Lee suggests, it might eventually become necessary that you’d have to bribe a fireman to save your house or an ambulance driver to get your ailing mother to a hospital. Then again, as Nam says power lies in knowing there are those weaker than yourself. Yung’s sprawling epic apparently rant to over five hours in its original cut before being reduced to three hours forty-five and then finally to the present 144 minutes leaving it a little hard to follow but nevertheless filled with a woozy sense of place and an aching longing for another Hong Kong along with a melancholy romanticism as a lonely Nam dances alone to a ringing telephone bearing unwelcome news.
Where the Wind Blows screens in Chicago on March 14 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)