Friday, December 4, 2009


by Lisa Morton

(Editor's Note: Lisa Morton has been writing her The East Is Red Column for some time now. We have been lucky enough to have her continue her column with our magazine. If you would like to read her previous entries in The East Is Red series, and to get updates on current Asian film happenings, please stop by her web site:

Ask any movie buff about Hong Kong action movies, and they’ll probably pop right up with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan; the more educated cineaste might mention the zoom-happy swordfests of Chang Cheh or the bullet ballets of John Woo.
But what few film fans outside of Asia know about is a peculiar subset of the Hong Kong action film that is a kind of thriller/horror crossover. These movies, that I’m going to call blood thrillers for now, feature the contemporary urban settings, fast pace, and police procedural aspects of thrillers, but they mash it up with a huge helping of gore, and an overwhelming, almost cosmic sense of things going terribly wrong. Their primary intent is not to offer the popcorn-happy e-ticket roller-coaster ride of the thriller, but to out-and-out horrify their viewers.
There really is simply no counterpart to these films in western culture, with the possible exception of some of the more disturbing episodes of THE SOPRANOS. The blood thrillers also factor in a heavy political element, suggesting that either society in general or a particular government is one big nightmare. It’s certainly no coincidence that the number of such films produced in Hong Kong has risen over the last few years, as tense relations between Hong Kong and the mainland government have ramped up, while film investment dollars have gone down.
If I had to choose the great granddaddy of Hong Kong blood thrillers, I’d opt for Tsui Hark’s seminal 1980 classic DANGEROUS ENCOUNTER - 1st KIND. Don’t let that title fool you: This bad dream starts with an image of a pin being pushed through the brain of a live mouse, and ends with a lunatic boy firing a machine gun off in a cemetery. The story focuses on Pearl, a seriously disturbed girl who blackmails three teenaged boys into joining her on a vicious crime spree; unlike later films in the sub-genre, the emphasis here is more on Pearl and her conscripted gang, and less on the police following her trail. DANGEROUS ENCOUNTER was the subject of a notorious censorship case when it was first released, and it remains one of the most brilliantly made and relentless forays into chaos ever put on film.
Tsui Hark was also behind 1988’s THE BIG HEAT (not to be confused with the Fritz Lang film noir classic of the same name). Tsui produced and Johnnie To directed this utterly grotesque story of a cop with a degenerative nerve disease investigating the brutal murder of his partner. THE BIG HEAT cemented the cop elements of the blood thriller, and its crazy pageant of brutality – which includes severed heads, amputated limbs, and horribly burned bodies – also laid the groundwork for the films to come.
The two best examples of blood thriller released over the last few years are probably Derek Yee’s 2004 ONE NITE IN MONGKOK and Soi Cheang’s 2006 DOG BITE DOG. Strangely enough, the two films have virtually the same plot: A naïve young man is imported from the mainland to act as a hitman, and after the hit goes wrong, the young man finds himself allied with a lonely woman while pursued by a dogged cop. From there, however, the two films feature very different approaches, with MONGKOK opting for a slick, big-movie surface, while DOG is nearly experimental in its low-budget style.
ONE NITE IN MONGKOK won nearly every major film award for Yee’s direction, which must certainly have come as a shock to Yee’s fans, who knew him at that point mainly as the director of the sweetly sentimental love story C'EST LA VIE, MON CHERI. Unlike some of the other blood thrillers, MONGKOK saves its heaviest barrage of violence for the climax, but up until then it’s incredibly tense, as the young assassin Lai-fu (who is so inexperienced that he’s never had a salad) finds himself betrayed at every turn; his only friend is Dandan, also from the mainland, working as a prostitute in Hong Kong and almost ready to return home with money for her family. When one of Dandan’s johns, a local bully named Walter, turns on her, Lai-fu intervenes; unfortunately, that act will prove to be Lai-fu’s undoing, when it’s not the upright police officer Milo (Alex Fong) who finally captures Lai-fu, but the vengeful Walter.
The absurdly named Walter is one of my personal favorite villains in all of cinema. What makes this cretin so memorable is…absolutely nothing. He’s not witty, spouting off one-liners as he commits mayhem; he’s not smart, or handsome, or young, or misunderstood, or honorable, or skilled. He’s nothing but a sullen, middle-aged, ugly little man, a coward who beats on Dandan until Lai-fu intervenes, but who rounds up a gang and returns at the end to wreak his brutal, bloody revenge. His rape of Dandan includes a single line of dialogue that is more disturbing in its implications than any amount of onscreen violence: As he closes in on her, he orders one of his henchmen to bring him a roll of toilet paper. At this point, we understand all too well that Walter is truly incapable of an ounce of decency or empathy, which makes him completely horrific and all too recognizable. In one of those wonderful bits of odd casting you find only in Hong Kong movies, Walter was played by a non-actor; in a film starring two strikingly beautiful and gifted young megastars (Daniel Wu and Cecelia Cheung), Derek Yee’s casting of a man who was apparently part of the crew (I’ve heard both accountant and producer) was one of those risks that paid off handsomely…or repulsively, perhaps.
In contrast to the attractiveness of both MONGKOK’s actors and cinematography is the look of Soi Cheang’s DOG BITE DOG, which takes the very handsome Edison Chen (yes, Chen is the superstud who sadly destroyed his promising career after DOG by getting caught in the center of a huge sex scandal), but covers him in so many layers of dirt and blood and make-up that he’s practically a genuine blob of darkness. Chen plays Pang, a Cambodian who has been raised almost literally as a fighting dog. Imported to Hong Kong for one hit, Pang is abandoned by those who hired him and pursued by cop Wai (Sam Lee), a man with so many demons in his past that his own actions almost make Pang’s seem placid. On the run, Pang takes up with a disturbed girl, Yu, who he finds living in a trash dump. Eventually Pang and Yu manage to flee Hong Kong, but Wai, whose life is now centered completely on his pursuit of Pang, follows anyway. The chase finally ends in some Cambodian ruins, as Pang desperately tries to protect the pregnant Yu from the out-of-control ex-cop.
Unlike Derek Yee, Soi Cheang came to his blood thriller after making horror films; his first film, 2000’s DIAMOND HILL, was an oddball little gem that centered on a brother-sister relationship, and played like V. C. Andrews gone Asian. His follow-up films HORROR HOTLINE: BIG-HEAD MONSTER, NEW BLOOD, and THE DEATH CURSE were straight horror flicks that continued to develop Soi’s style and reputation. But DOG BITE DOG is still like a nuclear explosion in the middle of Soi’s resume: It has a distinctive, jittery look that may make you wonder at first if your DVD is skipping. That look, though, will soon begin to gnaw at you as Soi’s 109-minute catalog of atrocities wears down your defenses. DOG BITE DOG may include some of the most insane violence you’ve ever seen – including a graphic attack on a pregnant woman – but its psychological horror is what will really leave you numb and gasping by the time it’s over. It’s virtually impossible to sum up how genuinely shocking DOG BITE DOG really is; my friend Tom Piccirilli came as close as anyone could by simply saying of this one, “Dear God in Heaven!”
And here’s one final reason I’ve chosen to review the blood thrillers at this particular time of year: ONE NITE IN MONGKOK is a Christmas film. Yes, really. There are shots of Lai-fu and Dandan wandering a Hong Kong full of Christmas decorations and holiday shoppers, and trying to understand what this “festival” is all about. Personally, I like to watch MONGKOK every December, since it really gets me into the proper holiday spirit. Merry Christmas, everyone!

(Unfortunately, DANGEROUS ENCOUNTER - 1st KIND is somewhat difficult to find; it has received at least one DVD release under the title DON'T PLAY WITH FIRE, but I’ve never seen the DVD. Likewise, THE BIG HEAT has never received a U.S. DVD release, although it can be found on an Asian disc at places like . Both ONE NITE IN MONGKOK and DOG BITE DOG are easy to find on DVD.)




--Lisa Morton