I never thought I’d write a review of Hong Kong Godfather because I’d never thought Best Buy or any other brick-and-mortar store would stock it, a strange Hong Kong movie whose major appeal was, one assumes, its rarity. It sits next to House of Traps (Chang Cheh, 1982) on my shelf devoted to Shaw Bros. movies, one of several that I never thought I’d see in its full, uncut form, much less on an NTSC Region 1 DVD.
Allow your humble blogger a moment to bask in the glory his good fortune. Shaw Brothers films like this have had a difficult history in the States, shuffled between distributors and even treated with indifference by fans who bought the Region 3 DVDs from Intercontinental Video (among others) unwilling to shell out money on a disc for a movie they already own. I understand, friends, I really do. Hong Kong Godfather never received a Region 3 release, but was announced as a future release from the now defunct BCI. When BCI closed, Funimation, another company under the same corporate umbrella, announced that they would release the remaining Shaw Brothers titles from BCI’s library.
And here it is. I watched Hong Kong Godfather again recently, free of the giddy anticipation of my first viewing. It’s a bad movie in some respects. The acting is never less than hammy and Wang Lung-wei’s direction straddles the line between cheesy Hong Kong new wave and typical Shaw Brothers cheese. Wide angle lenses, blue filters and location shooting sit uneasily next to fast zooms, cardboard sets and in-camera editing. The mise-en-scene contributes to the dated look, not only with some cheap looking interior sets but with hilariously dated eighties fashion. Norman Chu’s mullet beats out the abundant gratuitous violence and full-frontal nudity for the uncontested title of the most obscene aspect of the movie.
Watching the film critically also reminded me that Hong Kong Godfather represents the last, valiant effort to make the Shaw studio relevant and up-to-date with the rest of Hong Kong cinema. The studio more or less abandoned film production shortly after this film, which seems at times like an attempt to emulate the contemporary 80’s Hong Kong film even though it also feels like a throwback to Chang Cheh’s early 70’s gangster films with its constant, bloody melee fighting.
The movie follows triad members Lung, Wei and Wen (Norman Chu, Leung Kar-Yan and Richard Chung) as rival gang leader Hei Lan (Wong Chung), newly returned to Hong Kong after escaping murder charges in the United States, dismantles their gang and connections in the criminal underworld. Wei, formerly known as Mad Dog Wei, has retreated from the underworld to fulfill his wife’s dying wish, attempting to make a living as a florist while raising his teenage daughter. Wen left the gang to become a police officer, but the three brothers reunite at a birthday party for their boss, Han (Shek Kin).
The birthday scene sets up one of the films more interesting characters, Rotten Chi, a nasty gangster who abuses his power. For all of Lung’s philandering (he’s referred to as “Playboy Lung” by most of his fellow gangsters) and for all of the illegal activity the gang engages in, they’re a romanticized, benevolent criminal organization. Chi, however, will do anything to get ahead, including the murder of Boss Han. While Han laughs off Hei Lan’s attempts to bully him, Chi sees an opportunity and begins to conspire against his benefactors, eventually murdering Han. The murder of their beloved father figure forces Wei and Wen to return to a life of killing in order to avenge him.
The plot could easily be transplanted into a medieval Chinese setting, replacing the criminal world with the martial world, and result in a wuxia movie. Even much of dialog sounds like the stylized repartee of a historical film, as in the scene where Hei Lan and Han trade passive-aggressive aphorisms and metaphors in an attempt to one-up each other. The “three brothers” motif can be seen in everything from the classical Chinese novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, to Shaw’s “New Wuxia Century” film The Magnificent Trio (Chang Cheh, 1966).
But Wang Lung-Wei breaks from Shaw tradition with location shooting and scenes where his characters act something like real people. Hong Kong actually seems like a real place instead of a studio set, and the finale takes place in what looks like the same mall as that of Jackie Chan’s Police Story, released the same year. The best characterization and acting goes to Sam Wai’s Rotten Chi. Wai actually plays the character well, with as little bathos as one is likely to find in a movie like this. His character has one of the wider dramatic arcs and is blessed with the screen time to convey it. I almost wish the movie were more about him.
The other reason Hong Kong Godfather received so much attention is its violent action scenes. There’s so much machete chopping that it verges on absurd, especially the long and ridiculous finale. Other notable instances are a graphic child-murder (a dummy standing in for the child actor gets thrown through plate glass) and abuse against Wei’s teenage daughter. The infamy is deserved.
I enjoyed Hong Kong Godfather, but it doesn’t compare well to the films of John Woo and Ringo Lam, which is one of the reasons why it failed to gross even in the same league and why the Shaw studio turned to television. I’ve only seen one of Wang Lung-Wei’s other directorial efforts, 1992’s CAT III Escape from Brothel, which is a far worse film than Hong Kong Godfather, though equally violent (and far more misogynistic). Wang just wasn’t the sort of auteur that could compete with the 80's wave of "real" film makers. He's the sort of auteur that stages scenes of rape and infanticide.