Manhunt (追捕, John Woo, 2017)

Manhunt30 years ago John Woo was one of Hong Kong’s most bankable directors. The father of heroic bloodshed, Woo’s bullet ballet sent shockwaves through action cinema not only in his home country but around the world. Unsurprisingly Hollywood came calling and Woo was one of the first Asian directors to enjoy mainstream US success with ‘90s hits Broken Arrow and Face/Off before his overseas career began to stall and he eventually returned to Hong Kong directing period epics Red Cliff and The Crossing. Manhunt (追捕, Zhuībǔ) is intended as a kind return to source as Woo gets back into the groove of his beautifully choreographed ‘80s action hits but intentionally or otherwise he sails dangerously close to self parody with a mix of Big Pharma conspiracy and wrong man thriller.

Chinese corporate lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is a trusted employee of a Japanese pharmaceuticals company but is shortly to be transferred overseas, much to CEO Sakai’s (Jun Kunimura) displeasure – Du knows too much about the company’s less than transparent operations. Sakai sets up a honey trap to convince Du to stay but before it can spring Du is accosted by another woman, Mayumi (Qi Wei), who wants to talk to him about a difficult case three years previously in which an employee ended up committing suicide. After talking with Mayumi, Du goes home but the next thing he remembers is waking up in bed next to a dead woman. Du does the right thing and calls the cops, but the cops are working for Big Pharma and soon he finds himself on the run while maverick police chief Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and two female assassins (Ha Ji-won & Angeles Woo) try to track him down.

Manhunt is inspired by the 1976 film starring Ken Takakura which was one of the first non-native movies to open in China following the Cultural Revolution. Woo apparently made the film as a kind of tribute to the actor after he passed away in 2014, but he takes his cues from the source novel by Juko Nishimura rather than the Takakura film and the 2017 Manhunt shares little in common with the 1976 version other than a general plot outline involving a man on the run and unethical practices in the pharmaceuticals trade. Du Qiu is not a stuffy, by the book, prosecutor but a compromised employee of a shady organisation who is oblivious to his own complicity in its extremely unpalatable way of doing business.

Despite this, Du Qiu is just as lucky as Takakura’s Morioka in that everyone he meets immediately wants to help him. Even sworn enemies with their hearts set on revenge eventually wind up joining team Du as they each descend on the pharmaceuticals research laboratory where the deadly secrets will be revealed. Woo returns to his heroic bloodshed roots in allowing dogged policeman Yamura and the increasingly confused Du to form an odd couple buddy duo which begins with spiky one liners and ends with becoming one as each places his uncuffed hand on the same pistol to take down a few bad guys through the power of togetherness.

Woo’s action credentials remain unchanged as he races from set piece to set piece from the opening surprise massacre to Du’s subway chase escape, jet ski race, and mansion showdown before getting anywhere near the endgame of the research lab. Perfectly choreographed, the sequences bear out Woo’s distinctive sense of humour while also poking fun at his back catalogue through a series of homages including an entire coop full of white doves just waiting for their chance to fly.

Set entirely in Japan, Manhunt shifts between Japanese and Mandarin though it has to be said that the film suffers from its reliance on English which is often poorly delivered and deliberately stylised to ape classic action movie one liners the like of which have been out of fashion for two decades. Woo neatly sends himself up with an opening discussion of “old movies” allowing one of the film’s two female assassins to develop an odd fascination with Du which leads to her eventual awakening from company brainwashing, but he also pays his dues with the theme music to Sato’s 1976 version playing over the first scene of mass bloodshed. Woo may have slipped into self parody with his deliberately over the top theatrics, but he has fun doing it and his gleeful self skewering proves extremely hard to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

The Pilferer’s Progress (发钱寒, John Woo, 1977)

Money CrazyJohn 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.