Friday, June 2, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Saviour (1980)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

It would be easy to confuse Hong Kong police Inspector Tom (veteran actor Pai Ying, looking a bit bored) with your run-of-the-mill cop on the edge. His boss (Chris Dryden) at least seems to take him for one, complaining that Tom never keeps any criminal alive. But what the film shows of the cop lets him look like some sort of anti-Danny Lee, killing only in self-defence, being not too fond of torture, spending his free time taking care of an orphan boy. Given these facts, our so-called loose gun acts like the least psychopathic cop in Hong Kong cinema, though, admittedly, the way police officers in HK movies usually act, that's not much to say of a cop's mental health.

Tom's newest case is a series of murders of prostitutes. While the audience knows the identity of the killer right from the start, Tom will have to spend a few scenes not moving a facial muscle, or, as the experts call it, "investigating". Fortunately, one of the killer's victims escapes with her life and is willing and able to identify him. The young man doing the deeds is one Paul Kwok (Ng Man-Hung?), who isn't quite the nice little boy he once was anymore since he witnessed his mother killing herself in front of his eyes while rambling about "sluts" and "tramps", a catastrophe caused by his Dad's very obvious cheating. Now, with a witness, it should be an easy case for Tom, and Paul should be facing a nice vacation in an institution.

Unfortunately, the young man's father (even more veteran actor Tien Feng) is a retired gangster, and the sort of gangster without any scruples to hire one of his old associates to kill the witness and later on (in utter stupidity) even try for Tom's life at that. After the inevitable death of the witness, Paul goes free again.

The only way Tom sees to still catch his man is to let a friend of one of the victims (Gigi Wong), who also doubles as his own love interest, do some undercover work in killer provocation.

Before Ronny Yu became Ronny Yu, the emperor of blue lights in neo-wuxia movies, he learned the director's trade making movies in various other genres, like this Teddy Robin Kwan-produced thriller. Even this early in his career, and confronted with a total lack of blue lights, Yu certainly knew how to stage a scene, use dynamic editing to ratchet up the tension at the right moment, and set up a nice nod in the direction of Dario Argento in a staircase sequence. Quite unlike the enthusiastic, Chor-Yuen-influenced wallowing in careful artificiality that characterizes the visual style of Yu's films of the 90s, The Saviour is aiming for the speedy edited type of tight pseudo-naturalism typical of many of Hong Kong's crime films and thrillers of the late 70s and early 80s, with only short moments of the non-realist - like the flashbacks to the death of Paul's mother, that staircase scene, and a handful of other moments - prefiguring at once Yu's later style and making that style's debt to the giallo surprisingly probable. This doesn't mean that the shots that are supposed to look spontaneous and "real" here aren't set up just as carefully as those of a film made in a more obviously artificial style; The Saviour certainly isn't a point-and-shoot affair, but a thoroughly composed picture that is meant to feel thoroughly un-composed.

Most of the time, that well-constructed pseudo-naturalism works out well for the film, that is, as long as the script plays into Yu's hands keeping things relatively low-key and reasonably believable. Unfortunately, the construction of the movie's final act leaves something to be desired. What starts out unoriginal yet casually believable (as far as such things go), turns into a classic case of an idiot plot, where the final confrontation only plays out in the supposedly exciting way it does because the female lead seems to have suddenly misplaced her brain and her once professional cop friends just as suddenly stop thinking or acting like people who know what they are doing, too. This sort of thing would rankle less in a film that never pretended to be taking place on planet Earth as we know it, but in a film that spent most of its first hour pretending not to want to be too sensationalist, this sudden turn for the preposterous is more of a problem. That the script's failure at this late stage doesn't ruin the film completely is Yu's achievement - he just pulls enough magic tricks out of the "look, I'm DIRECTING!" hat to distract from the writing problems.

The other problems Yu needs to and does distract from throughout the movie are the frankly bored and boring acting by Pai Ying and the decidedly unthreatening performance by Ng Man-Hung. It's nice that they (or Yu) decided to step back from the more typical scenery chewing found in every other film from Hong Kong ever, but they then fell into the trap of acting so low-key they might as well have been replaced by wooden puppets. I think I would have preferred the scenery-chewing here.

Still, Yu's direction is stronger than his film's flaws, and though I wouldn't recommend The Saviour as one of the director's best films, it is well worth watching for anyone interested in Yu's early career or in the move against the beautiful artificiality of the venerable Shaw productions taking place in the Hong Kong movies of that era.

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