More notable for length and violence than narrative strength or cohesion, there’s still a lot of classic HK packed here…
In honour of the forthcoming release of the late Benny Chan‘s Raging Fire, we look back on his career and the genre for which he was best known.
In one of many unique attributes about the Hong Kong film industry during its Golden Age especially, it was common practice for established directors to team up to make movies together; either by their own initiative or by their studio’s (in most other industries they were rare, special occasions). This even happened a number of times with HK’s biggest directors and releases: Johnnie To and Ching Siu-tung co-directed 1993’s The Executioners (then To would do numerous comedies with Wai Ka-fai); John Woo and Tsui Hark co-directed (or more accurately, directed against each other) before falling out over 1987’s A Better Tomorrow II; Tsui and Ching were shuffled to do 1991’s The Raid; and 1/3rd of the directors in Hong Kong seemed to co-direct 1990’s The Swordsman.
But looking back, one of the more odd pairings would have to be Benny Chan and “Steve” Cheng Wai-Man. As a solo director after this, the vast majority of Cheng’s movies would be horror/exploitation/Category III fare including the Horoscope series and the first Troublesome Night. And that element shows; but so does Chan’s M.O. (as he was still developing it), and how very different the two’s styles seemed.
Man Wanted (1995)
Crime boss Fung (Yu Rongguang, Iron Monkey, Karate Kid ’10) runs a gang eying expansion through drug smuggling via the Mainland while also taking care of his impetuous, knife-brandishing girlfriend Yung-yung (Christy Chung) and her ne’er-do-well brother. After his trusted blood brother, Hwa (Simon Yam — a different Hwa than What a Hero!’s this time) saves Yung from debt collector-heavies, Fung further rewards Hwa. Fung even tacitly allows Yung to try putting moves on Hwa. Familiar with the tribulations of gang life but not seeing its chaos as too different from his pre-exile days during the Cultural Revolution, Fung advises Hwa just to “make enough money then quit”.
Meanwhile, Hwa’s nurse girlfriend June (Eileen Tung) gets increasingly worried about him and for good reason: because he’s actually on an undercover sting to try to take Fung down! But with Fung’s power and maybe even worse yet, growing emotional attachments towards both Fung and Yung, is Hwa up to the task? Even if he is, Hwa’s jealous colleague, Officer Tai (Kenneth Chan) could ruin his mission. Tai refuses to even acknowledge Hwa as an agent, urging their department to regard him as just another criminal for hanging around with them so much.
This all looks so modest in retrospect, seeing the comparatively budget special effects with guns that just shoot sparks and explosions — something Chan would absolutely revel in with subsequent movies — that also fall short of spectacular. But this movie is at least a curiosity for how it fully establishes and solidifies most of what would become what I call “Chan Tropes” that were previously teased.
Chan’s unashamed love of showing off beautiful women (though remarkably never in exploitative fashion), luxury cars (particularly Ferraris), and beautiful women in luxury cars starts here. Another trope emerging here is the sharply acrimonious yet implicitly respectful relationship between cop and criminal, hero and villain — one of the most enduringly interesting motifs of his career. But the most common Chan Trope of all became terribly dysfunctional (even when individually effective) police forces where different cops and/or entire different branches don’t get along, refuse to coordinate or outright hate each other — and that would only get worse after this movie.
Initially, Mongkok (I know Man Wanted is the official English title, but I like Mongkok Sky better!) seems to be (too) closely following the foundations of modern HK action cinema with that classic theme established by City on Fire: an undercover cop who has deeply conflicting emotions after finding a strong bond with his targets. But then the movie completely flips that on us, as the scenario City on Fire ended with turns out just to be the prologue here.
Unfortunately, Chan and Cheng flip things on us a little too much and a little too sharply this outing. Somewhere near the middle, the plot takes a rather improbable turn (though fans of Chan’s more recent, famous White Storm will probably recognize the genesis of the plot device here). Then it alternates between disconcertingly grim turns (with a couple of particularly gratuitous bits of violence that Chan would never employ in his crime movies again), conversely sometimes sugary romantic ones that fill a disruptively large portion (going as far as loudly playing a Sammi Cheng ballad in the not-really background for one romantic scene), and finally a rather odd one (involving a character losing his sanity after being drugged).
I have a feeling the more excessive bloodletting and imbalances can be more attributed to Cheng seeing his background (or rather, foreground as in most everything after this debut). I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie was part of the reason for the creation of the Category IIB rating (somewhere straddling “PG-13” and “R” by Hollywood standards), as it was created just months after the theatrical run of this popular and intensely violent offering (non-horror movie violence seldom elicited a Cat III rating).
It’s not that all of this seems terribly rushed or sloppily put together for this 132 minuter — a jaw-droppingly lengthy runtime for a 1995 HK action movie — but even by the era’s standards, Mongkok seems outright schizophrenic. Furthermore, the protagonist becomes appallingly unsympathetic (I again must add “even by the era’s standards”) as the movie progresses. He openly chases after a criminal woman (and not in the way that he’s supposed to!) after getting stabbed at the expense of his girlfriend who nurses him, has no particularly convincing reason to have gotten the level of attachment and guilt that he does towards Fung, and later deliberately lets civilians get killed because he’s busy plotting an elaborate revenge. This is another thing that would thankfully never show up in Chan’s work again, as a police movie hero who’s distinctly less likeable than many triad movie antiheroes of the same period creates a problem.
If Mongkok was supposed to be about the moral deterioration of a policeman who keeps making horrible decisions, it could’ve worked out better. But the movie all too clearly wants the audience to root for this tool. So we’re left with of a cop who has a remarkable penchant for failing to save others (man, woman, or child), helping create the situations that get people around him killed (stranger, loved one or colleague), and reminding everyone how inconvenient it must’ve been trying to carry out an affair via pager. Giving this movie a better sense of pace, balance and mood, not to mention somebody to credibly sympathize with — things Chan would handle far, far better in his later career indeed — could’ve been a strong boost.
Almost everything here (story, screenplay, action, character development, tone) seems like an appetizing prototype of a style and technique not quite yet developed (What a Hero! was more like spare time practice from a different field before building a prototype). As such, Mongkok Sky sustains decent enough action, twists and grit to satisfy those who just can’t get enough of the era’s crime movies, and for more esoteric appeal it makes good use of its namesake. But it’s not enough to stand out as a very significant part of the genre or Chan’s career.
“Hmpf. You’re offered promotion in both the triad and police force — but you choose the police force.”
Join us next week for the next in our The Benny Chan Cops & Robbers Rundown.
Neon-lit Portland Street — which straddles Mongkok and Yaumatei districts of Kowloon and is to be “awarded” to Hwa by Fung on this movie — was long known and depicted as a hotbed of triad activity and intrigue (there’s even a Young & Dangerous spinoff from the same period named after it: Portland Street Blues.) But a decade after this movie was made, the area became more known for (and visually dominated by) Hong Kong’s tallest shopping mall building (at least in terms of how much of its space is actually used as a regular mall) upon completion of the $1.3 billion-ish Langham Place, obscuring the poor red-light district folk who once dominated. But it’s not like that puts them — or the ubiquitous prostitutes who work one strip in particular — out of business, as they start their day soon after Langham finishes theirs.
The prostitutes aren’t plainly out & about on the streets there like in a few other parts of HK (because they’re usually working inside the clubs — some reputed to be run by triads), but they can still be clearly seen at times. By now you might be thinking, “Gee, you seem to know an awful lot about prostitutes there!”. But anyone can, for tending to so much as walk around such areas late at night (and Mongkok never sleeps); because they have nothing to hide as prostitution is indeed fully legal in HK (with the funny caveat that they’re not allowed to explicitly “solicit” — but many make it obvious as can be). On that note, the street’s gang-affiliated girl on Mongkok Sky who does much of Fung’s (other kind of) dirty work definitely dresses like one, but there’s no explicit mention that she is.
Like with most of his contemporaries, a few of Chan’s early movies made references to the looming 1997 Handover. Unlike most of the others however, Chan’s references didn’t tend to imply any sense of strong uncertainty, apprehension or satire (nor did he simply go off to Hollywood during the time like the majority of the biggest HK directors did). On What a Hero!, Wong proudly proclaims that Lau will not only be a great policeman, but “after 1997, the first Chinese Governor or Hong Kong!”. Then on Mongkok Sky, Fung views life as the same inevitable hell from either side of the border — perhaps due to the fact he’ll strive to make it that way for everyone no matter which (and actually, so will Hwa, albeit less intentionally).
This was popular enough to become a not-exactly-necessary “series”, neither having the same directors, story links nor cast (except Yam on the third and final part).