Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Criminals (1976)

This Shaw Brothers production consists of three episodes by different directors "based on true crimes".

The first one, "Hidden Torsos", tells of the rather unlucky attempt of Jenny (Shih Szu) and her little mute daughter to leave Jenny's lover Rong Sheng (Si Wai). Jenny ends up stabbed, her kid drowned. Rong Sheng bricks their bodies in, but chooses such a stupid place for it that they are found earlier than he had expected.

The second episode, "Valley of the Hange" (sic), is about a worker named Hong the Bull (Kong Yeung) and his troubles with his wife Mei Jiao (Terry Lau). Just think, although he paid enough to marry her to pay for quite a lot of whores, she doesn't want to sleep with him anymore! When Hong finds out that Mei Jiao instead sleeps with his foppish colleague De the Prince (Tin Ching), only deadly violence can be the answer. The film approves.

The last part of the film, "The Stuntsmen" (sic, again) tells the story of Shaw Brothers stuntman Chen Zhong (Lo Lieh). Surprisingly enough, many of the stuntmen we see don't seem satisfied with what the Shaw Brothers are paying and work as gangsters on the side. Chen Zhong meets and falls in love with the prostitute Hong (Tanny Tien Ni), who looks exactly like actress Tanny Tien Ni, whom he of course fancies. He has a glorious idea for Hong's prostitute career - pretend she really is Tanny Tien Ni! The plan works out nicely, but Chen Zhong is sucked ever deeper into the gangster lifestyle and soon has his own gang as well as his own gang wars. He survives his new lifestyle nicely until he takes the homeless Kid Liu (Wong Yu, not the regularly one-armed one) under his wing and in his trust. As it goes in cases like these, Liu falls in love with Hong, their affair gives one of Chen Zhong's enemies a convenient method to blackmail Hong, murder happens.

The exploitation arm of the Shaw Brothers was quite active during the second half of the 70s, churning out lurid films like this one by the dozens. This "ripped from the headlines" portfolio film was successful enough to get three sequels. The reason for its success probably wasn't the film's rather dubious quality, but the siren song of cheap, ugly thrills. Of course, I'm perfectly fine with that.

Seen as a film rather than a money-making device, The Criminals is a bit more problematic. Each of the segments is directed by a different director and goes for a different sort of luridness. This makes the film more than a little disconnected.

Cheng Kang's first segment is probably the best of the three. While it is a bit short, "Hidden Torsos" works very well as a tour de force thrill ride. A certain visual pop sensibility, a wee bit of Poe and merry crassness collide in a nice little heap of cheap yet effective thrills without much substance but with a lot of drive.

Hua Shan's second segment is less satisfying. It is as sleazy as one could wish for, but the "horned husband kills his wife" plot just couldn't keep me interested for a whole thirty minutes. On the plus side stands an ensemble of actors camping it up so much that it's obvious nobody here is taking the whole thing seriously. That doesn't make the episode shorter however.

Where "Valley of the Hange" is too long, Meng-Hua Ho's "The Stuntsmen" is way too short to effectively develop anything that is packed into it. At first, the glorious chutzpah of the Shaw Brothers basing parts of an exploitation film on their own bad reputation is very charming, especially when the film goes as far as to have a doubleganger prostitute of one of the studio's actresses played by said actress herself in it, but the segment soon just ignores the enticing and rather creepy self-referentiality and transforms into a standard gangster film.

Alas one that fails at pressing the plot of a two hour film into barely forty minutes. A few scenes like the two big(ish) murder set pieces do pack a bit of a punch (this is a highly professional production after all), but everything else happens too fast and is too superficial  and jumpy to leave much of an impression.

Of course, The Criminals still is the movie in which the Shaw Brothers show the Shaw Brothers as the cradle of protection rackets and prostitution, so nobody interested in the studio's films or exploitation filmmakers exploiting themselves should miss out on it, even though it is not a very good film.


No comments: