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Hong Kong's Triad Movies: Art Reflecting Life

Written by Sean M. Tierney Tell a Friend

With the release of Johnnie To's Election, people are wondering if the Hong Kong Triad film might see a resurgence. This perspective, of course, assumes that it ever went away in the first place. The triad film has a long and illustrious (albeit checkered) history in Hong Kong cinema. And, like triads themselves, some are really good and some are really bad.

People too often have a lot of fun at my expense when I tell them that Nick Cheung Kar-Fai is my favorite actor in Hong Kong. That's because, like Johnnie To, he can veer between the farcical and the psychotic. In Election, he creates an electricity that hovers around him like gasoline fumes impatiently waiting for a spark. His performance helps make Election the tension-filled meditation that it is; believe me when I tell you that I will never look at a porcelain spoon the same way again. Neither will you. This film is easily the most visceral Hong Kong offering of the year. Some might argue that such an honor goes to SPL, but for me, Donnie Yen looking like he'd been mugged by Elvis' stylist added a touch of levity that Election foregoes. By the end of this film, you'll find yourself glad to be able to breathe again.

The gorgeous Celestial remasters of the Shaw Brothers' catalog has allowed us to see, in their original glory, The Teahouse and Big Brother Cheng, two triad-themed movies from the 1970s. Both carry a Category III rating for their Triad content. Looking at them now, its impossible to separate then from the time they were made; inside and out, these are Seventies films, from the wardrobe to the soundtrack to the social issues (and positions taken on them) in the film.

A downward spiral of violence, despair, and raw courage, The Teahouse opens with a tracking shot of the titular establishment that is at once innovative and, given the pre-steadicam cinematography, epileptic. In the film, triads young and old seek to terrorize the patrons of the teahouse and the residents of the surrounding area. In an innovative twist, the boss of the teahouse becomes a renowned triad figure through a slip of the tongue. This sets up a number of humorous and not-so-humorous encounters with corrupt cops and real gangsters. Especially noteworthy is a scene in which 'Boss' Cheng, having no triad background, stumbles through a series of rituals aided only by an employee with a shady past.

The sequel, Big Brother Cheng, picks up where The Teahouse left off. Cheng, living quietly in Sha Tin, returns to the mean streets of Hong Kong to make the teahouse safe again. Of course, he does so by out-thugging the thugs; his employees become the most ruthless gang on the streets. In a series of scenes, they are shown ridding the neighborhood of lowlifes like the junkie Snottie Nose, a walking PSA who looks like an extra from a Hong Kong remake of Night of the Living Dead. Cheng's gang doles out vigilante justice with meat cleavers, lead pipes, and, in one particularly uncomfortable scene, collections of bottles, cans and bricks that get tied to rapists in very sensitive places. This scene, however, is followed by a musical number extolling the achievements of Cheng and his followers. These kinds of juxtapositions are plentiful in Big Brother Cheng, and there is enough interesting cinematography, choreography, and long-gone Hong Kong geography to make this film a must-see; the demise of the antagonist is particularly interesting, both narratively and visually.

Triads, the Inside Story is a Chow Yun Fat vehicle that Roy Cheung hijacks. Filled with images that we now take for granted, like funerals, initiation rituals, gang fights, gun fights, festival fights, and Shing Fui On threatening to kill everyone and their mother an average of once a minute, it is a film at once ebullient and subdued. This film is worth the price of admission (or acquisition) simply because of the three times you get to watch a stuntman get hit by vans. And I mean hit. While the story may be no new feat of scriptwriting, the actors imbue the characters with a Goodfellas-esque sense of everyday-guy who just happens to be willing to kill you at the drop of a hat; they'd be great friends and terrifying enemies. Chow Yun Fat's performance as the good son returned to Hong Kong to uneasily accept the mantle of leadership of the Hung Hing society (sound familiar? It should...) is a good one, but he breaks no new ground here. On the other hand, Roy Cheung's performance as the 49 with no other options is the film's moral center. Through his character, we are reminded that these films, as fun as they are, reflect a way of life that for many in Hong Kong and other places is both all too real and the only real choice they have.

Flaming Brothers is a classic 1980s Triad movie about two men's trials and tribulations as members of Macau's underworld. In their childhood, these two are street urchins who gladly accept food from an orphan who is only slightly higher up the food chain herself. As adults, Chow Yun Fat and Alan Tang rise to positions of power in Macau, but also face some difficult and entertaining challenges. From Hong Kong to Thailand and back to the former Portuguese colony, this film provides an entertaining and gut-wrenching example of all the best that the triad film offers; action, romance, melodrama and a hearty does of pathos. Lots of blood squibs, too! Besides, where else would you get to see a movie written by Wong Kar Wai in which Patrick Tse wears two different fur coats AND get to see Chow Yun Fat lip-synch to Anita Mui while wearing the same make-up? This film's conclusion, however, is anything but light-hearted. Nonetheless, it is inherently gratifying even in its tragedy.

One of my favorite Wong Kar Wai films is his first, the Andy Lau/Maggie Cheung/Jackie Cheung classic As Tears Go By. It may be the penultimate example of what became for Lau a recurring, and frequent role; the young rascal kid with a good heart. Maggie Cheung is as engaging and enchanting as ever, playing the innocent New Territories girl Ngor whose heart belongs to the Kowloon bad boy Wah. Jackie Cheung is Fly, a rascal with the patience of an Australian hand grenade and a temper to match. Wah is constantly getting him out of sticky situations that are always of his own making. Imagine if The Pope of Greenwich Village were set in Mongkok. Can you do that for me? It's easy to do when the cinematography by Andrew Lau gives us a first and beautiful glimpse at what would become a Wong Kar Wai trademark; the blurry action sequence. An informal survey of women in Hong Kong of various ages validates this film's status as one of the classic "Wah Jai" films of his early career. (A close second in the "favorite Andy Lau goo wat jai" results was A Moment of Romance).

Another film from the same period, Hong Kong Godfather features a cast of familiar faces, among them Lo Lieh (who also directed), Joey Wang Cho-Yin, Roy Cheung and Tommy Wong Kwong-Leung, acting his usual berserk self. When the head of the Hung Hing (!) society is framed for murder, it is up to his son, played by Andy Lau, to clear the matter up. This movie contains several "Did I just see what I think I saw?" moments that make it well worth seeking out. In addition, it is one of the movies that make it easy to see why people accused filmmakers of producing what are essentially recruiting films. All in all, this is a must-see film, though the last thing we see is as prophetic as it is enigmatic...

Andrew Lau's Young and Dangerous series launched a whole universe of sequels and spin-offs (Young and Dangerous 1-6, Born to Be King, Those Were the Days, Portland St. Blues, The Legendary Tai Fei, Once Upon a Time in a Triad Society 1 & 2, etc.). The Young & Dangerous series is the story of a group of 'rascal kids' from Tze Wan Shan, a housing estate of no small notoriety (LMF grew up there), who rise to the top of the Hung Hing Society (is there an echo in here?). Widely excoriated as recruitment films, they depict triad activity, especially by young people, in music video, manga-inflected visuals that are as captivating as they are disturbing. The spin offs tell the back stories of characters such as Sister 13 (Portland St. Blues), Tai Fei (The Legendary Tai Fei), and Ugly Kwan (Once Upon a Triad Society 1&2).

HK Triad is the story of two men, each on one side of the law. Lau Ching Wan and Francis Ng, a gangster and cop respectively, rise to a position of uncontested dominance of Hong Kong's underworld precisely because they inhabit both sides of the law. Lau plays Ho, a man of such moral vacuity that his greatest concern during a throat-slashing is that his suit doesn't get stained. He looks resplendent in a sharkskin suit; the film is rather unique for its late 50s/early 60s decor and soundtrack, as well as what may be the only use of piranha torture in cinematic history. Athena Chu plays a young woman on the verge of being pimped. By her mother. A rare attempt at moralizing from Wong Jing, the film's pathos derives from the tensions between characters, the main locus of which is a love quadrangle between Lau, Ng, Chu, and Michael Tse Tin-Wah as Piggy. Much of the film takes place inside the Kowloon Walled City, a lawless patch of land in which, due to a political anomaly, neither Britain nor China had any real authority. While not a triad film in the strictest sense, it still tells a compelling story about a life of successful crime that nonetheless ends in tragedy.

Hong Kong's triad films are a heady mixture of fact and fiction, of honor and treachery, of good and evil. They show us both realistic and highly idealized portrayals of people who are very, very real. These kinds of dichotomies are underscored by the revelation that real life and movies rarely if ever capture one another; taking that into account, the truth of the triads probably lies somewhere in between.

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Published December 8, 2005

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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