Wednesday, 1 August 2007

God of Killers (1981)

Original title (Both Chinese & English): The Story of Woo Viet.

God of Killers (1981)
Ann Hui makes serious movies. Not commercial genre like heroic bloodshed action movies. I enjoy heroic bloodshed movies, but never expect it to have any serious thing to say. Ann Hui likes to make movies with messages, especially political message. In this case, this is a political drama. In fact, this is the 1st of a series of movies she made about the plight of Vietnamese refugees.

This movie is actually the 2rd part of the Vietnamese trilogy. She took this political stance further in her next movie the following year, Boat People (1982), which is in fact has a stronger political voice. Only in this film, the boat escape occurs at the start of the movie, while in Boat People, it takes place at the end. You could say that her next movie is a 'prequel' to this one, chronologically, but not story wise.

BUT, operating in HK, she couldn't make ONLY serious films: art-house/social drama/political drama like Mainland Chinese directors Zhang Yimou, Li Yang, Tian Zhuangzhuang, etc. These directors could make these films and attract large audience because Chinese domestic market is large, and what's more these directors attract international attention. But not so with HK directors, and so very few of them make inroads into such movies. Having said that, even Zhang Yimou is going commercial in his 2nd phase of his career and making commercial genre films like Hero, Curse of the Golden Flowers, etc.

As the result of the pulling of 2 forces, she ended up making some serious films like Boat People that is only drama based with serious topic. Or something that's purely commercial, entertainment escapist movies like The Spooky Bunch (1980). While in this film, she straddled between the 2 camps. It has too much crime action to be a pure political drama, and too little to satisfy the John Woo fans (I was hoping for more political intrigue and less soot-them-up). The film with the closest genre I could think of is The Quiet American (2002) (another Vietnam War film). Of course, not in the same league in terms of budget, stage set, etc.

I mention John Woo because this film was marketed as heroic bloodshed. Officially, heroic bloodshed genre started with Long Arm of the Law (1984), some 3 years after this movie was made. And 5 years before the 1st John Woo successful heroic bloodshed A Better Tomorrow(1986). If anything this is a romance, not the kind of male bonding as seen in John Woo's movie.

Nonetheless, it was marketed as heroic bloodshed, hence the name changed to God of Killers. For people who have seen A Better Tomorrow where there're are more bullets rain down than the HK Monsoon season. Compare to a tame title like A Better Tomorrow, this violent title lures the audience to expect 10 times more violence and a slew of adrenaline pumping rapid gun-plays when they find little. All worked up, and the adrenaline has nowhere to go. That just leave a lot of irate viewers with a lot of pent-up adrenaline.

Why did they market this as heroic bloodshed when it isn't? Because this genre sells in the international markets! While political drama from HK doesn't. More importantly, this is a movie where Chow Yun-Fat is a hired gun like many of his later John Woo's heroic bloodshed flicks (actually Lo Lieh does most of the straight shootings). In many occasions, one shouldn't complain about the directors, lodge your complaint to the marketers, instead. They lead you astray.

You could now understand why I would have problem deciding which section I should put this movie into - crime action, or drama.

Having said this, for a movie that predated the heroic bloodshed for a few years. And Ann Hui has no John Woo's films to use as models. In fact, if anything, it's the other way round. Judging from this perspective and time frame, Ann Hui is a trailblazer in more ways than one. I had a sneaking suspicion that this movie let John Woo see Chow Yun-Fat cast in his crime action flicks.

In the refugee camp, the official interrogates Woo Viet a couple of question to ascertain if he's a genuine Vietnamese refugee (as supposed to Chinese Mainlander escapee, for example). The 1st question he asks is in Vietnamese to make sure the refugee could understand Vietnamese. And the 2nd question tests their knowledge of Vietnam. The official asks where the Ritz Theatre is located in Saigon. The answer is Trong Duc Phun Ave. I know the answer too because I lived 5 mins walk from there (in fact, the next street), and frequented it umpteen times for SB wuxia and later Russian war films (my favourite was a 'Russian' film called White Wolves Indian Dakota, and I was too young to know that Dakota was actually in USA. And the muscular topless guy in the film was in fact American native Indian played by a white (Russian) guy. With hindsight, I'm quite certain that the American Indian lead in that movie is Crazy Horse).

The story of Woo Viet is really the story of Chinese diaspora. His parents fled China for Vietnam, now he left Vietnam for HK in the late 1970s, and heads for Chinatown in the U.S., but ends up in Chinatown in the Philippines. That's pretty much sums up the floating lives of the Chinese diaspora.

Ann Hui proved herself to be 1 of the leading - but the most unsung - HK director.

Before this film, Chow was typecast in either romantic or comedy roles. After this film, he lived over a decade long life of crime - on the silver screen - from HK's A Better Tomorrow (1986) to Hollywood's The Replacement Killers (1998). But it all started with this movie.

Like it or hate it, this is Chow's career changing film.


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