Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Men From The Gutter (1983)

In jarring contrast to movie cops everywhere else, Hong Kong policemen have to work more than one case at once, so HK cops Qiu Zhenming (Michael Miu) and Sergeant Zhao (Lo Meng) have to be able to cope with two problems at once. Their life is certainly not made easier by the fact that the two men can't stand each other. Zhao thinks Qiu is too soft, while Qiu takes Zhao to be so ruthless and violent that he does more harm than good. In a bizarre turn towards believability, both men won't learn to respect and love each other.

Not that the cases they are working on are leaving them much time for any of that sort of business. Firstly, there's a luckless group of ex-convicts lead by Wang Guangtai (Parkman Wong) planning an armed assault on a jewellery transport for the policemen to cope with. How luckless are they? Wang shoots a police officer even before they have done anything more illegal than buying weapons.

The second case regards the quite single-minded Zi Jian (Jason Pai Piao), a gangster who has come to Hong Kong to take bloody (and he means bloody) vengeance on gangster boss Xu Wen (Wong Yung) for trying to kill him.

Where Wang and his friends are just your typical losers trying to escape poverty and desperation, Zi Jian is a one-man army, and sure enough, the latter will turn out to be a much larger problem for the police than the former.

In 1983, the Shaw Brothers studios were in the beginning of their death throes. Many of their films of this and the following two years were somewhat desperate seeming attempts at becoming relevant to their audience again, at times leading to confoundingly weird films or, like in the case of Men From The Gutter, to films that neither look nor feel like earlier Shaw Brothers movies at all, even if they are part of genres the studio had a lot of experience in, like the "based on a true story" exploitationer.

The film's director Ngai Kai Lam/Lam Nai-Choi is today better known for his weird-o-fu fantasy film The Seventh Curse and the absurd violent thing that is Story of Ricky, but he also had quite a hand for grim and brutal crime films with a helping of HK New Wave hyper-realism like this one.

Men From The Gutter is related to the ripped-from-the-headlines brutalism that would a few years later become a staple of CATIII cinema and stands in marked aesthetic contrast to the pop sensibility the Shaw Brothers news exploitation movies of the 70s exhibited. Where the old films were all artificial colours and stylish ugliness, Lam's movie goes for a less stylish version of the grimy (that is of course just as artificial as the older model, but puts a lot of its artifice into not showing it), all dirt and grime and beautifully photographed poverty.

The film looks at the people running and shouting and killing before that background with cool, distanced sympathy, taking no sides and making not much of a moral judgement on anyone (except Xu Wen, who is obviously too rich to deserve anything more in characterization than "proper bastard"), be he or she cop or robber, but still shows the carnage everybody's life here descends into with a slight undertone of sadness for humanity. Neither this sympathy nor this sadness let Lam forgot that he is supposed to make an action film here, and so much of the film's running time consists of the sort of sharp, short, fast edited, and quite brutal looking violence the director does so well in those of his films that don't include fights against aliens or Fan Siu-Wong punching through someone's body.

The sense of real physicality surrounding the action here is of course typical for the new wave of Hong Kong action of the time, but Lam's film does not share the slightly chaotic feel which is also part of that tradition. Instead, even the most heated sequence of events here (and especially Zi Jian's final fight is as heated as they come) is shown in a way that seems coolly controlled by the director. Again, the film shows a marked friction between the intensity of the things happening on screen and the distance with which director and film seem to regard them; it's as if Lam would like his audience to feel uncomfortable with what he's showing as much as he wants them to enjoy it in his own version of the classical exploitation dilemma of needing to wallow in what one criticizes.

Men From The Gutter is not at all a film I would have expected as part of the late period Shaw Brothers' output, but it's as nice a surprise as I could have wished for.


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