Saturday, May 13, 2017

One famous Hong Kong New Wave movie and another that's criminally less well known (film reviews)

Be they new or old, they're Hong Kong waves... ;)
The Extras (Hong Kong, 1978)
- Yim Ho, director and co-scriptwriter (along with Philip Chan and Ronny Yu)
- Starring: James Yi, Kenneth Tsang, Terry Lau
On the same day as I caught a screening of Leong Po Chih and Josephine Siao Fong Fong's entertaining Jumping Ash early last month, I also viewed the film that's often credited as marking the beginning of the Hong Kong New Wave.  Considerably lighter in tone than many of that seminal movement's representatives, Yim Ho's The Extras is actually a rare comedy by a director whose cinematic works (including 1984's Homecoming (the winner of six Hong Kong Film Awards) and 1990's Red Dust (the winner of eight Golden Horse awards)) tend to be on the serious side.
Often frenetic to the point of feeling ridiculously chaotic, Yim Ho's feature film debut revolves around Hakky Ho (James Yi), whose dark skin tone is referenced in his name (hak means "black" in Cantonese; and he actually gets referred to as hak gwei (black ghost) in the dialogue) but Cantonese abilities makes it so that he's pretty much accepted by everyone concerned as a native Hong Konger.  An aspiring actor who dreams of becoming a movie star, he manages to get a womanizing luminary (Kenneth Tsang) given to having flings behind the back of his producer wife (Idy Chan) to help him gain entry into the movie industry, albeit as a lowly extra who often gets landed with what appear to be some of the worst parts in filmdom. 
The villain who gets shot multiple times and then falls to his death?  The hapless cop who gets (nearly) drowned by an angry villager?  The martial artist who bites the head off a live snake?  Those are some part of the roles Hakky Ho gets assigned.  Worse, he invariably ends up botching the part so that disaster ensues in a farcically entertaining way (though he at least does manage to attract the attention and affections of a winsome starlet (Terry Lau is female despite having a masculine sounding first name))!

Years ago when I was living in Philadelphia, I passed up the chance to check out a VHS copy of The Extras that was available for rental at the Chinatown video store I went to regularly.  In retrospect, I really wish I had done so; not least because I have a feeling that the version of the film I viewed at the Hong Kong Film Archive (and which the facility has stated is its sole copy) may not be complete.  
Put another way: Even while Yim Ho has described his directorial debut as "an experiment", I find it hard to believe that a London Film School graduate would produce an offering so poorly edited; and this especially since, even with some story segues feeling nonsensical because sections of the movie were too "jumpy", this is a work which still manages to entertain quite a bit!
My rating for the film (in the condition I saw it): 6.0
The Servant (Hong Kong, 1979)
- Ronny Yu and Philip Chan, directors and co-scriptwriters (with Joyce Chan and William Ho)
- Starring: Paul Chu Kong, Michael Chan, Terry Hu, Philip Chan, Melvin Wong

Unlike Jumping Ash and The Extras, I had not heard of this other Hong Kong New Wave movie that I recently viewed courtesy of the Hong Kong Film Archive's Revisiting the New Wave screening program.  Or maybe I had -- since, among other things, I'm fairly familiar with its directors' filmography (and have even met and interviewed one of them) -- but then promptly forgotten about The Servant because its title is so, well, generic.  
While its title gets one thinking it'll be along the lines of The Help (or 1963 British movie The Servant), this Ronny Yu and Philip Chan film is actually a crime drama-thriller focusing on two very different cops and pitting them against two very different killers.  Inspector Chow (Paul Chu Kong) is a by-the-book policeman who lives at home with his mother and sister while Inspector Pang (co-director and -scriptwriter Philip Chan) is a rakish fellow who's been known to take bribes to help him compensate for his losses at gaming tables in Macau.  Friends despite their personality differences, they also are tasked with overseeing security at the local international airport (Kai Tak, since this film was made close to two decades before Chek Lap Kok would come into being!). 
Despite being behind bars, a crime boss (Nick Lam) continues to scheme to enrich himself and get people to do his bidding.  Seeking to effect a jewel heist at the airport, he dispatches a tough hatchetman (the ever menacing Michael Chan) to find ways to get Inspector Chow as well as Inspector Pang to effectively turn a blind eye and allow his people to get away with their lucrative haul.  Also brought onto the criminal team is a bomb expert (Melvin Wong) whose dashing demeanor belies his deadliness.
Its main characters may be broadly drawn but the character actors who play them do it so well that they end up feeling quite distinct and very interesting to watch as they go about their business.  Also, while The Servant's general storyline can seem fairly straightforward, the movie possesses rich detail and intriguing depictions of such as what appeared to be acceptable police tactics in the day along with interactions showing what happens when formal strictures and less rigid inclinations clash which, collectively, make it a thoroughly enjoyable watch.
In contrast to The Extras, this is a film whose editing is absolutely top notch (and the fact that Wong Yee Shun's credits include Yim Ho's 1978 effort as well as Hong Kong movie classics such as Story of a Discharged Prisoner, The Spooky Bunch and Chicken and Duck Talk make me even more convinced that there's a better version of The Extras that was made than what I got to see last month).  Among other things, The Servant has suspenseful scenes that are seriously tense, comedy scenes that are creatively framed, and action scenes that are taut and thrilling.  Best of all, it's the kind of movie is able to still feel like a fun rollercoaster ride even while also noticeably reflecting its time and age.   

My rating for this film: 7.5


Carver said...

Beautiful shot. Interesting reviews of the movies. The Servant sounds like a movie that I would like.

YTSL said...

Hi Carver --

Thanks for checking out the reviews as well as the photos. "The Servant" is an interesting film but I'm afraid it'll be hard to view outside of Hong Kong. Still, you never know so keep on checking out film fest programs and such! :)