Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼, Lau Sze-yue, 1990)

look out officer BD 1The thing about classic Hong Kong comedies is, they were made for a very specific time and place as a quick populist diversion not intended to have much of a life beyond their original release. Despite the thrown together, sketch show-style progression from one tenuously related set piece to the next held together by quick fire comedy, they could also be surprisingly subversive as in this 1990 comedy starring a young Stephen Chow. Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼) is a silly buddy cop comedy and supernaturally tinged procedural but it also satirises the Hong Kong government’s response to the growing “boat people” crisis in which, as is declared in the film, those who’ve come from Vietnam for “economic reasons” will be regarded as illegal immigrants and deported. 

The film begins with two policeman as one berates the other for stopping to burn “ghost money” on the street, describing his need for ritual as like that of an old woman. The first policeman, Biao (Bill Tung), then gets a message on his pager to check out an abandoned warehouse. Piling into the police car, Biao and religious cop Chin (Stanley Fung) arrive but don’t find anything suspicious. Chin decides to leave while Biao wants to investigate further. Poking around, Biao finds himself directly above some kind of large scale drugs lab into which he heroically jumps and beats up most of the grunts waiting below before the head gangster turns up and throws him out of a window. Biao’s body lands directly on the top of Chin’s car who has returned after having second thoughts and wanting to make sure his partner is OK.

The “official” explanation is that Biao has killed himself because of his excessive gambling debts. Up in heaven he gets put on trial (alongside recently deceased dictators Ceausescu and Marcos) and the judges find that his death is indeed suicide despite his protestations. Eventually they agree to let him go back to Earth as a ghost to prove he was murdered and take revenge on the killer. Biao gets assigned a “saviour” whom he will know thanks to an unusual birthmark. The “saviour” turns out to be rookie cop, Sing (Stephen Chow), who is not exactly top of his graduating class but aided by Biao’s supernatural powers he just might be able to find the real killer after all.

As it turns out Chin dabbles in Taoist magic (to make his arms longer, for no particular reason) as do the gangsters who seem to have demonic forces on their side. Biao never saw the face of the man who killed him because he had him in a headlock, but he does remember his terrible body odour thanks to being shoved under his armpits. Victory in the final battle relies on conjuring a unique charm which consists of equally stinky ingredients including virgin’s urine, cat poo, and flatulence neatly bringing several of the film’s running jokes together into one satisfying punchline.

Running gags there are a plenty from the grumpy old cleaner at the police station they’ve nicknamed the 1000 year old virgin who likes to mop up the men’s toilets while they’re busy so she can assess the policemen’s “capabilities” for herself, to the cat who keeps defecting on the altar, and Sing’s general weediness. The supernatural procedural runs in tandem with the usual romantic comedy subplots including Chin’s over protective attitude to his grown up daughter who inevitably ends up in a relationship with Sing thanks to Biao’s supernatural wingman-ing. One of the “charms” Baio has been given to help him in his quest is a “lewd” spell which suddenly makes the victim randy for the first person they see. Biao uses this to get his own back on Chin for leaving him behind by making their austere superior officer suddenly come over all goey only to have her snap out of it and accuse him of sexual harassment.

The humour maybe distinctly lowbrow, but there is a degree of satire lurking in the background as Sing is sent into a “massage parlour” with a codeword in Vietnamese only to discover that all the girls in the place can understand it and immediately parrot back the recent ordinance of Vietnamese immigration. Later, a Vietnamese man threatens to commit suicide over the cruel and inhumane treatment he has received as a Vietnamese immigrant trying to make a life in Hong Kong, fearing he may be forcibly deported and will be killed if he has to go back to Vietnam losing everything he’s tried to build in Hong Kong.

When Biao eventually gets back to heaven they don’t want to let him in even though he’s cleared his name because heaven has a quota and he doesn’t meet the criteria. All is not lost, however, because you can buy your way in as an immigrant with ”special investor” status. In heaven, it seems, everything is fine so long as you have money. As above, so below. Another characteristically nonsensical, juvenile comedy from Shaw Brothers, Look Out, Officer! is as silly and of its time as one would expect but it is undeniably entertaining and unexpectedly moving in its final moments.


Remake of Philip Chan & Ricky Lau’s Where’s Officer Tuba? (1986)

Celestial Pictures trailer (English/traditional Chinese subtitles)

Justice, My Foot! (審死官, Johnnie To, 1992)

Stephen Chow has always been a force of nature but even before making his name as a director in the mid-90s, he contributed his madcap energy to some of the highest grossing movies of the era. Justice, My Foot! (審死官) is very much of the “makes no sense” comedy genre and, directed by Johnnie To for Shaw Brothers, makes great use of the collective propensity for whimsy on offer. Even if not quite managing to keep the momentum going until the closing scenes, Justice, My Foot! succeeds in delivering quick fire (often untranslatable) jokes and period martial arts action sure to keep genre fans happy.

Chow plays unscrupulous lawyer Sung Shih-Chieh who has built himself quite the reputation as a silver tongued advocate, able to talk his clients out of pretty much anything by bamboozling the judges with crazy logic offered at speed. However, his talents have a downside in that he and his wife (Anita Mui) have sadly lost 12 children already which he attributes to a karmic debt for all his finagling. She’s convinced him to retire and move to the country but Sung keeps getting himself involved in other people’s affairs and when his reckless to decision to defend the son of a wealthy man who has caused the death of a pauper in a street fight results in the death of their own infant son, Mrs. Sung has had enough.

That is, until she encounters a series of injustices of her own as a heavily pregnant woman visits her tea shop along with her shady seeming brother. Soon enough the brother tries to convince a random stranger to marry his sister, only to suddenly run off with all of the guy’s money leaving him alone and confused with the mother to be Madame Chou (Carrie Ng). The man gives chase but unfortunately Madam’s Chou’s brother falls off a cliff and creates a whole lot of problems for everyone in the process. Now feeling sorry for a pregnant woman who has been left so completely alone after her own brother tried to sell her and her in-laws murdered her husband, Mrs. Sung changes her mind and convinces her husband to return to the law in defence of this extremely desperate woman.

For a “nonsensical” film, there is actually quite a lot of plot which occasionally becomes hard to follow as it moves freely between set pieces. The jokes come thick and fast and are often of the idiosyncratic Cantonese variety which does not translate particularly well though the delivery helps make up for any lack of understanding. Aside from that Chow packs in as much of his trademark slapstick as possible as he cedes the spotlight to his co-star Anita Mui who provides the martial arts action whilst proving why Mrs. Sung is the more dominant partner. Accordingly there is some typically sexist humour in which Sung is criticised for his “effeminate” cowardice by Mrs. Sung as she dresses him in her clothes, makeup and hairstyle while he escapes. A running joke about two gay servants doesn’t really go anywhere but is actually sort of refreshing in its ordinariness.

Nonsense it may be but there’s a persistent layer of darkness from the throwaway references to the deaths of the Sungs’ children, to the violent punishments inflicted by the court which include both beatings and eye gouging, and then there’s the attempted suicide of Madame Chou apparently gathering enough energy to hang herself from the rafters mere minutes after unexpectedly giving birth in another extended gag. A judicial farce, the film mocks the very idea of justice as the judges are all corrupt noblemen, well known for taking bribes and looking after their own to further their positions. Sung is no better as he plays the system for his own gain, cynically affirming that there is no rule of law and it’s everyman for himself when you live in such an anarchic system. To’s direction is typically ironic with his canted angles and balletic camera even if he is, to a certain extent, playing the Shaw Brothers game. Justice, My Foot! is not a first rate Chow effort, sagging in the middle and getting bogged down in its own manoeuvring, but does bring both the laughs and the punches with a standout performance from Anita Mui to boot.


Celestial Pictures 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):

 

 

Killer Constable (萬人斬, Kuei Chih-Hung, 1980)

KillerConstable+1980-19-bEvery sovereign needs that one ultra reliable and supremely talented servant who can be called upon in desperate times. For the Dowager Empress of the Qing Empire, that man is Leng Tien-Ying – otherwise known as the Killer Constable. When a sizeable amount of gold goes missing from the Imperial Vaults, it’s Leng they call to try and get it back. However, what Leng doesn’t know is that there’s far more going on here than he could possibly have imagined and he’s about to wade into a trap so deep that you never even see the bottom.

At several points, the giant broadsword style weapon that Leng carries catches the light and appears to shine out with some kind of ethereal righteousness, yet if Leng wields the shining sword of justice he does so with a heart of ice. Early on one of his most trusted subordinates argues with him and says he intends to leave because he thinks Leng is more killer than policeman. He doesn’t take prisoners, where there’s reasonable proof of guilt he cuts the perpetrator down on the spot. At one point he tortures a suspect for information by mock drowning him in a lake while his wife and terrified children look on. When the wife complains, he hits her causing the husband to make the mistake of going for Leng which earns him the prize of getting his head cut off right in front of his family who are now left without any means of supporting themselves.

Leng cares only about the letter of the law. As the squad of policemen ride through the barren landscape, they pass through ruined towns filled with the starving and the desperate. One of the more compassionate men asks what’s happened here and if they, as policemen, shouldn’t be trying to help, but is reminded that these poor people are Hans and the policemen are Manchurians, so it’s just none of their business whether they live or die.

However, here is where Kuei’s film deviates from the accepted path. Leng’s generally bleak attitude to life is the one the film most closely identifies with. Any attempt at compassion is met with by betrayal, each act of kindness only earns retribution and being softhearted is almost another word for dying young. That is not to say the film is completely behind Leng as a hero or even as an anti-hero, he too will pay for the way he lives his life starting with realising that he alone is responsible for the deaths of the men that blindly followed him on a fruitless quest.

Killer Constable is more of a swordplay film than a kung-fu one and is filled with plenty of energetic and expertly choreographed fight sequences. The men fight in blazing heat (at one time literally), pouring rain and mud filled swamps against a suspiciously well trained gang of opponents who always seem to be lying in wait for them. The Killer Constable also seems to have something of a fetish for chopping off people’s legs which carries on right into the bloody finale with limbs flying off with oddly gleeful abandon.

As it turns out, the Killer Constable is not completely heartless, he’s just lived in this harsh world long enough to come to the opinion that the “bad” cannot be redeemed and need to be cut down like weeds so that the flowers can once again bloom. However, he, in his quest, has crossed the line and become that which he most hates. To nearly everyone else in the picture, Leng is a bad guy – the uncompromising face of the law and the knock at the door you most fear coming. In the film’s surprisingly downbeat ending he too will get what’s coming to him.

Bleak beyond measure, the only good and true thing in the cruel wold of Killer Constable is the blind daughter of one of the criminals. Kind and cheerful, she tries to help Leng as he lies wounded and is entrusted to him should her father die, yet she pays the heaviest price of all, left standing all alone in the rain waiting for the return of those who will never come home again. Far from heroic, Killer Constable is a critique of blind justice dealt out by self righteous egoists who will always discover the error of their ways far too late.


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