Sunday, May 30, 2010

On the Run (1988)

Ah, marriage. Hong Kong special branch cop Heung Ming (Yuen Biao) and his narcotics cop wife Lo Huan (Ida Chan) may be separated, with their daughter Lin (Chan Cheuk-Yan) living with Heung Min's mum (Lee Heung-Kam), but Lo Huan is still willing to keep their marriage officially running so that her husband will be able to emigrate with her before Hong Kong's reunification with China comes around.

Who knows what Lo's boyfriend, the homicide superintendent Lui (Charlie Chin) thinks about that arrangement? It won't matter in the long run anyway, for Lo has found out that Lui and some of his homicide colleagues have their hands deep in the drug business (of course to buy themselves a way out of Hong Kong), and boyfriend or not, Lo is not the sort of police officer who would stand for that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, Lui finds out what Lo knows about him and decides - instead of confessing his crimes to the higher ups in the force - to hire a pair of professional killers from Thailand to get rid of Lo.

Chui aka Miss Pai (Pat Ha), is the one doing the actual killing while her uncle is responsible for distractions, reconnaissance and the handling of clients. The hit on Lo is not much of a problem: Chui is an excellent shot and the cop does certainly not expect Lui to be this unscrupulous.

Heung Ming is grief-stricken about her death, although it is not clear how much of his grief has to do with the fact that his ticket to the USA is now gone and how much with more proper emotions. He's not the sort of man who can let a thing like this rest in any case, very much to the trouble of Lui. While Lui and his partners in crime are of course the people officially responsible for finding Lo's murder, Heung Ming decides to investigate the case on the side, too. That would not necessarily lead him anywhere, but circumstances help him out.

The uncle half of the killer duo decides to raise the price for the hit. After all, the victim was a cop and nobody found it necessary to mention that to him. Lui and his men, however, think it more convenient to just kill the old and plan on getting rid of Chui too. Too bad for them that they are trying to be subtle getting rid of their victim and so give Heung Ming the opportunity to find out Chui's whereabouts from him too before the old man dies.

Even worse for our bad guys, the honest cop also manages to find the surviving killer first, and he turns out to be more interested in finding out who had his wife killed than taking vengeance on Chui. Soon enough, his colleagues are trying to kill Heung Ming, too, and the only way for him to survive is to ally himself with Chui, who proves to be much more effective in a fight than the cop is.

Heung Ming will need all the help he can get. This being a Hong Kong film, he'll also have to protect his mother and daughter from his enemies, and there's no nice Hollywood cowardice to guarantee a child's safety.

Alfred Cheung is usually known as a director of comedies, but he also made a small handful of very accomplished crime and action films. On the Run is probably the best of that bunch, and it really is quite an achievement.

The film is grim and intense, features some relatively short but sweet action scenes but impresses especially through its peculiar sense of sobriety, not something you find all that often in Hong Kong movies, and certainly not in those from the apex of the heroic bloodshed genre. This does not mean that Cheung's film is not exciting or tense, but rather that its action scenes and its melodrama aren't feeling as over the top as is typical of Hong Kong films of the time. The shoot-outs seem to be a bit more down to earth in their contents than usual, and Cheung films them in a differently stylized way than many of his contemporaries. Where the Woo school tends to go for a more operatic feel to the killing proceedings, Cheung's action is more tight than broad and more deadly than bloody. This lends the action a colder and less playful feel.

As it is with the action, so it is with On the Run's emotional content. Outside of the three big emotional core scenes, the characters' feelings are seething below a cool surface and only truly come up when the characters reach their breaking points. There's a scene in which Chui moves the corners of her mouth up a bit, and Heung Ming shows himself unironically surprised that Chui is "suddenly all smiles" that I found characteristic for the film's handling of emotions; it is underplayed without playing the characters so cool as to be inhuman. Cheung also never drives it too far: everyone in the film has a breaking point, and everyone reaches it. Afterwards, there's no room for being controlled anymore. The only exception to that rule is Chui, who does not break as clearly as Heung Ming or Lui do, but instead subtly softens around her edges, which fits (the movie idea of) a professional killer nicely.

That this aspect of the movie works as well as it does is very much the responsibility of the actors. Yuen Biao is not typically someone I connect with subtle acting or interesting work outside of martial arts films (although he has successfully dabbled in other types of roles for most of his career), but he shows himself to be capable of more than I expected of him. His Heung Ming is note-perfect as a man fastly losing everything he ever had, with Yuen projecting a seething anger below his cool that just seems to explode out of him in the film's grim finale.

Pat Ha is equally great, at once projecting the distance and coldness under fire I've grown to expect from professional killers in the movies and a core of human decency that makes her helping of Heung Ming even when it isn't necessarily in her best interest anymore believable.

On the Run is one of the hidden treasures of Hong Kong cinema, tense, tight, unflinching and sometimes cruel - everything I love about the city's films.


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