Ringo Lam crafted a tighter composite of Golden Age Hong Kong and Chow Yun-fat’s talent than probably thought possible…
As if it’s news to anyone in the loop, there was a world-changing action movie revolution in Hong Kong during the second half of the 1980s — to go right along with the city’s cemented status as a supermodern economic powerhouse — largely initiated by and to an even greater extent through Chow Yun-fat. But John Woo’s 1986 A Better Tomorrow had really only revealed the first side of CYF’s action hero aura. Just 6 months after that, Ringo Lam, a director with a career running remarkably parallel to Woo — having much trouble finding his voice or the freedom to make the kinds of films he’d wished to and being mostly relegated to comedies up to then — would also emerge with a similarly sudden explosion in popularity. Woo and Lam would get their breakthroughs via the same superstar they helped mould.
But from there the two directors’ directions would become as utterly different in execution as they were remarkably similar in form. Lam’s Chow established in 1987’s City on Fire would be the counterpoint to Woo’s in ways somewhat recalling Hiroshi Inagkai’s samurai hero Toshiro Mifune vs Akira Kurosawa’s: Woo’s Chow espoused violence as unbridled Romanticism with larger-than-life mythology about it, while Lam though by all means still striving to maintain excitement, sought to espouse it through grittier and more probing realism. Of course, by the time A Better Tomorrow and City on Fire had done their rounds (no pun intended), it seemed just about every HK action director was tossing Chow a gun or two (for each hand) for their own violent tales of Brotherhood (triad, police, or both) with their own takes on what could possibly drive the man to be so vaguely heroic, cool and trigger-happy. During the trend’s late-80s peak, the actor found himself in give or take a half-dozen such roles per year.
Not one to worry about simply following trends, however, Lam would continue taking HK popular cinema and Chow in new directions and ever-escalating new heights of tense, ruthless realism with his City on Fire follow-ups. The first was 1987’s Prison on Fire, which built upon Chow’s amiably charming criminal persona only to cap with a shockingly vicious eruption of violence. Then there was 1988’s School on Fire, which in its original cut was so uncompromisingly harsh and grim that it forced arguably the most freewheeling industry in the world at the time to heavily censor it for reasons that had nothing to do with sexual or political content (and even then the end product was still pretty depressing).
So how could the director possibly up the ante any further from there? Simple: by lowering and balancing the shock while making it count for more.
Sergeant Lau (Chow Yun-fat) aka Meow-Meow (don’t ask why) heads the Criminal Investigative Division with his testy sidekick Nam (Tommy Wong) among others. Meow is tipped off by his high-living informant buddy about an upcoming arms deal. The dealer, Sister Ha (Elaine Kam) certainly doesn’t fit one’s image of the type: she just wants some (big) extra income to live well with her little girl, Ka Ka (Chan Cheuk-yan), even if it means bringing shady Japanese and overseas Chinese men to her place to sell to.
The lead checks, but the raid and ensuing shootout is far from having an ideal end, with money and weapons seized but not the buyers, and only Ha dead from it when protecting her daughter. So to the squad’s great misfortune and Meow’s regret for having played a part in Ka Ka’s mother’s death, they will need to depend on the initially traumatised little girl and her self-isolated rural Mainland immigrant community to help with the investigation. The cops come across Ka Ka’s aunt Cher (Cherie Chung), her very curmudgeonly, fervently anti-urbanite (especially when those urbanites happen to point guns at them) father Lee (Shaw Brothers veteran Ku Feng), and Ah Leung (Lau Kong), an uncertain connection to the family who runs a metal shop.
There’s tension to go all around. Lee’s only real concern is keeping petty distractions like men and murder cases from getting in the way of his daughter’s chores. Both Lee and his granddaughter refuse to so much as acknowledge each other. And Meow’s colleagues are getting very impatient and frustrated with “hick” Cher’s ignorance about the city, with her, in turn, feeling nonchalant about the investigation. But the one apparent lead is that the case seems to have a connection to the coke-sniffing businessman Mr. Hung (Paul Chun Pui), who has some highly unusual staff at hand including enforcer Bullet (Roy Cheung), who in turn has his own sidekick of sorts, Big Eye (Nam Yin).
Wild Search is based very loosely upon Peter Weir’s 1985 Witness, with the Amish community replaced with a somewhat less stringently traditional and keep-to-themselves (yet still that much less cooperative) community of Mainland immigrants. One could technically say that it’s a Chow Yun-fat vehicle; but on one hand it’s considerably more while on the other it works just as well to think of it that way anyway. After all, this film gave the actor a chance to be an actor again (as he was in his earlier New Wave films but with more experience) above being a star as with John Woo, Tsui Hark or (heaven forbid) Wong Jing — yet all without relinquishing his more recent and at least equally likeable star power.
For many there was always a certain, often intangible or unexplainable “something” about Chow’s charisma. But I believe this film — and equally importantly his performance in it — makes it more apparent why: His screen presence and charm carries equally effectively (though usually in their own ways) towards other men, women or children alike. So the actor’s wide-ranging charisma is especially manifest here for being one of the only and quite possibly the best instance where he gets to have extensive interaction and well-developed relationships with all three. The film manages a similarly steady balance between Chow’s police procedural work, home life, could-be romance, could-be surrogate parenthood, practical forays into the business world and village life, and what many would inevitably come to see him for (but ain’t gonna get a whole movie of here), heroics. It’s a hell of a lot to pack into 98 minutes all in satisfactory doses.
Normally, that would scream “tonal imbalance” as HK cinema was notorious for. But Wild Search’s wild transitions (note I said “transitions”, not “jumps”) in content amazingly don’t feel out of place. Right in the opening minutes, Meow’s peaceful nighttime cruise around a city beautifully decked in New Year decorations as he’s chatting with his informant is suddenly interrupted with a zooming shot on an anonymous bloodied body they pass on the street. It initially seems plainly gratuitous, but it’s just a “friendly” and necessary reminder off the bat: this is Ringo’s World. It’s a cold, cruel, corrupt world; so the best that can be done is to find some degree of warmth, humour and justice in it. To reinforce the film’s bittersweet mood (and symbolise its Mainland immigrants), it makes a recurring theme out of a cover of Teresa Teng’s sweetly pleasant “Yueliang Diabiao Wo De Xin/The Moon Represents My Heart”, one of the Mandarin dialect’s most beloved evergreen songs.
With this film Lam further bolstered the unmatched naturalism of the brutality in his films that made them more dramatically impactful (if not as stylish) than those of Woo and others. Lam’s films didn’t glamorise violence even when they lingered dangerously close to revelry in it. The degree of detail and attention he puts into the shock, vulnerability and panic of civilians during gunfights, car chases and targeted hits here in fact deglamorised it, to the point it somehow feels so utterly different for an action-crime genre that was flooded with CYF films alone (let alone everyone else’s) at the time; even when the others focused so much more on that element.
While not exactly understated, Search just as surely avoids going to extremes, with the violence never over-the-top, the drama never melodrama and the comedy never hokey. Instead, it’s the more intricate little details that lend Search much of its punch: the most sardonic satire (the brazenly robotic way news reporters react to a violent fight); the cutest little aside (Meow’s hilarious quip at having to wait for Ka Ka); forebodingly evocative scene composition (Ka Ka’s toy bike drive into the darkness of a narrowing hallway); and blackly comic spins on the most common tropes (a meet cute involving a gun to the face).
Quite different from the 60s-70s pool of top HK actresses who often already knew kung fu/dance/performance art, Chung represented and essentially heralded the 80s-90s pool who’d largely come out of beauty pageants, especially Miss Hong Kong (with Anita Yuen, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Reis and several others to follow). That was naturally the case, since Miss HK was run by TVB, which also saw many male superstars including CYF launch their careers through their dramas. But Chung was the original, with a fittingly classic kind of glamour to go with it. From the people making the films to the people watching them, Chung so captivated HK cinema at one point that in addition to often being top-billed in all-star releases, there was a movie essentially built around and even named after her in Patrick Tam’s 1984 Cherie.
Yet for all of that, Chung would still become best known (especially later) for her extensive screen partnership with Chow. It didn’t matter whether they were in shameless knock-offs of earlier hits (1987’s Spiritual Love) or an “ensemble” piece where Cherie shared CYF with other girlfriends unknowingly (1988’s The Eighth Happiness); by this point their films were all but guaranteed big hits. In fact, they were even paired in Stanley Kwan’s 1985 debut Women back when Chow was considered one of HK cinema’s worst commercial liabilities — and it was still a success (thus more showing Chung’s clout then). But their biggest pairing (and probably Chow’s most beloved non-crime movie alongside Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) was 1987’s An Autumn’s Tale, which this film creates an interesting inversion of their chemistry from, with Chow being worldly and Chung being the bumpkin. But the added X factor of Chan helped keep this pairing as fresh as any other could be.
However, Chung isn’t the only one who has quite the history of screen pairings with Chow; but his other most common connection was of a very different variety. For a generation, Roy Cheung — famous for playing vicious villains though usually of a supporting variety unlike Anthony Wong or Simon Yam — was the cinematic bane of Chow’s existence. Chow would find himself facing off against Cheung a preposterous amount of times in many different forms regardless of who was the criminal and who was the cop. Cheung was the one who converged his police force around Chow on City on Fire, forcing him to make a soul-scarring decision; he was the coldhearted and corrupt prison officer Scarface who relentlessly tormented Chow and most other prisoners in Prison on Fire; and the two would even have serious friction as part of the same gang on Triads: The Inside Story. But in Wild Search came their most epic face-off, going several intermittent and protracted rounds with each other in about every way imaginable (guns, fists, cars and “other”).
While both Chung and Chow are great reasons to appreciate Eureka’s crystal-clear 1080 HD blu-ray release, the best argument of all comes from one Andrew Lau, just a year before he’d become a director himself. Though he’d already shot several major HK movies of the late 80s by then (Armour of God, City on Fire, As Tears Go By), Wild Search even without the massive budget of some others dazzles like no other, showing a keenly adroit sense of spacing, lighting and reflection. Lau found himself equally at ease in capturing the equally insidious wonder of the cityscapes and the sugarcane fields, thereby potently emanating Lam’s difficult vision of a strikingly but superficially beautiful world. Seeing this film in this way brings one (or perhaps reminds one) to wonder if Lau was an even better cinematographer than filmmaker — he’s certainly more consistent as the former if nothing else. But either way, this is among Lau’s finest work.
When all’s said and done, Wild Search is a very distinctly Lamian slice-of-life comedy-drama: one that has to diligently strive to carve out its peace of mind amidst ruthless gangsters, equally ruthless and interwoven corporate corruption, communal animosity and accompanying cross-border politics, and cruelly fatalistic outbursts of violence. Within it all — and thanks to strong support from all three of his most frequent major collaborators up to then in Lam, Chung and Cheung — we’re afforded perhaps the clearest glimpse we’ve ever gotten of the complete Chow Yun-fat, effectively showcasing his heroic, romantic, comedic, dramatic and most inclusively charismatic credentials.
“I’m rich. I have a reputation and plenty of mistresses.”
Wild Search is available now on UK Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.
Poor, poor little Chan Cheuk-yan found herself in all kinds of awful and tragic situations in that mean old late 80s-early 90s HK film industry. Apparently having only a 5-year career — thus all roles as a little girl — she was in a remarkably high amount of HK’s more/most violent or depressing crime/action movies, also including 1989 cult favourite On the Run, 1990’s Fatal Termination and 1991’s Casino Raiders II (and her last film was The Heroic Trio where not even babies were spared). While a quite significant amount of major Hollywood actors started off in the industry either behind the scenes or in bit roles when they were very young (usually no later than early teens), most HK child performers would not stay in the industry long at all or do more than a handful of movies. So despite only having a dozen or so films, for Golden Age HK that makes Chan one of the most prolific child stars.
If not as good as this one (but hell, even the original’s not as good as this), Witness would again be remodelled in only somewhat more faithful form for the 2003 Indian film Paap; that time changing the Amish to an isolated Buddhist community. All three films are superbly photographed though neither other beats Lau here.
Home media details
Distributor: Eureka Classics / Eureka Entertainment (UK)
Edition: Blu-ray (2021)
The Blu-ray includes an interesting interview with Cheung, telling rare information about his rather unusual, ironic background (something there seems to be minimal information about on the English web) for the roles he’d play. There’s also an old-school (seems 1989), straight-from-VHS program segment about how Hong Kong dubs were made for the English market, giving a quick look at prolific voice actor Simon Broad who many from a certain generation or two will remember as Chow Yun-fat. At the least, it showed improvement from the Kung Fu Era’s dub industry, staying commendably consistent in keeping Broad playing Chow’s characters for example. And for easy testament as to why CYF indeed needed a dub actor then, just see the goofy NYC-set middle section of A Better Tomorrow II.