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January 03, 2013

Long Arm of the Law

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Sheng gang qi bing
Johnny Mak - 1984
Fortune Star All Region DVD

In 2005, the Hong Kong Film Awards presented a list of the 100 best Chinese films. Long Arm of the Law came in at sixth place, above King Hu's Dragon Inn, and below A City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Johnny Mak's film also was recently included in a series of Hong Kong noir films curated last year by Johnny To in Hong Kong. At the time the film was originally released, it was nominated for seven Hong Kong film awards, including Best Picture, winning awards for editing and the supporting performance of Shum Wai.

The kind of crime film that's recalled here is closer to some of the American crime films of the Forties, influenced by Italian neo-realism and the greater immediacy of bringing cameras out of the studios and into the streets. Some of the footage of this gang of mainland crooks trying to hit the big time in a Hong Kong heist looks more like a documentary than something staged for a narrative film. The idea of the camera as a tool for documentation is echoed by shots of surveillance cameras and monitor screens. In one of the flashier scenes, someone is seen with a small Super 8 camera, filming a murder taking place in a shopping mall.

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The film takes place at the time when mainland Chinese, legally or not, would go to Hong Kong to make the kind of money impossible to earn at home. The quintet here is a team of former soldiers, led by Tung, who has established himself in a derelict section of Kowloon. The amount of money anticipated is relatively modest after the five way split, but enough for support the kind of life the four mainlanders have known. Things go wrong from the start when one of the gang is killed trying to cross the border.

One of the gang members reflects on his girlfriend, now a nightclub hostess, with scenes that present village life in China as idyllic. Indeed, the four mainlanders find themselves overwhelmed by a Hong Kong that offers so many possibilities, and requires constant negotiation, especially as the planned heist can not be carried out, and they are immediately spotted by the police. Making things more treacherous is that the local crime boss they work with is himself caught between the mainland gang and the police as a known informer.

When the mainland gang does a hit in order to get some immediate cash, Mak creates an audacious scene. The policeman known as Fatso is shot on a mall balcony, overlooking an ice skating rink below. Fatso's fall is broken up into several shots. Once he falls on the ice, populated with skaters, the camera follows Fatso as he slides around the ice rink. An overhead shot reveals a design of red stripes made from his blood.

Another scene may have influenced John Woo just a couple of years later. Tung and three gang members argue about another gang member who needs to go to a hospital for a life saving operation. The argument escalates into a four way "Mexican standoff" as each of the four holds a gun against the head of another.

There are several notable action set pieces, made at a time when scant attention was paid to Hong Kong cinema. What one is left with, though, is a parable about the illusion of money buying happiness. As the mainlanders learn, everything comes with a price, and usually that price is more than imagined. Even worse, when the surviving gang members are trapped with no where to go, they are given away by one very real rat.

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Posted by peter at January 3, 2013 07:35 AM


Thanks for shared!

Posted by: TonyViet at January 8, 2013 05:25 AM