Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Delinquent (1973), starring Wong Chung, Lo Dik and Lily Li. Directed by Chang Cheh and Kuei Cheh-hung.

(All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.)

IF Friends can be categorized as a fairy tale (a little Grimm, by some measure), then The Delinquent is pure tragedy. This could be said about more than a few of director Chang Cheh's better-known Shaw Brothers movies (like The Assassin or The Heroic Ones), but The Delinquent towers over them all with its unique, increasingly morose tone. Out of all Cheh's attempts to emulate the angst of the "Reckless Youth" found in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), he succeeds here --exceeds, really-- the best. (James Dean's "Jimmy Stark" in RWaC wouldn't last five minutes in this bleak Hong Kong.) However, he wouldn't have created this triumph without the help of three key people: writer Ni Kuang, co-director Kuei Cheh-hung and actor Wong Chung (in his first leading role).

As the plot generally goes, the teenaged John (Wong Chung) convinces himself the easiest, quickest way he and his father (Lo Dik) can get out of living and working in the HK slums is if he helps Boss Lam (Tung Lin) and his gang of robbers get into Wing Kee Warehouse to clean it out, after which John will be given a generous portion of the profits for his assistance. What complicates matters is his father is the head night-watchman at the warehouse.

While we don't know all of John's backstory, we can guess things started getting tough when his mother (seen in a brief flashback) left home. Apparently, she tired of being a housewife at some point and started going out evenings; his father thought slapping her around would bring her back to reality. It did; she divorced him and married an understanding butcher (Shum Lo). Her subsequent attempts to communicate with John through messages delivered to him by his girlfriend, Elaine (Lily Li), only serve to anger him.

The script rationalizes the father's boorishness to his being head of the household and his reputation around the area for being rough on would-be crooks who've previously tried to break into the warehouse. He wants John to get ahead in the world through hard work and avoiding shortcuts to prosperity. Though John loves his father, he sees the results of all the old man's laboring as a big waste, because it seems he hasn't advanced any further than those who also find time to relax and raise hell once in a while. These days, John is taking after more like his mother, so his father can't help but worry.

Sometime after he's fired from his job at a restaurant for fighting on the streets too much (which always brought the cops to the establishment, to the detriment of their business), John gets word of how Boss Lam needs him so they can infiltrate the warehouse. Lam's underling, Big Sean (Fan Mei Sheng), oversees a brothel, and he offers a woman to John as a means to win him over. Even after a night with her, John can't commit to the deal; when Big Sean then demands immediate payment for sleeping with the lady, John only offers to pay him later. In short order, Big Sean and some of Lam's other men track him down at a beach and beat him up when he decides not to pay at all.

Shortly, John is picked up by the police, and when his father refuses to post bail for him this time, it's Boss Lam who sets him free. Lam now talks directly with John about the proposition, offering him (in addition to money) employment, new clothes, a sports car and time with his girlfriend, Fanny (Pei Ti). It appears Lam doesn't want to mess with John's dad when he suggests to John if he can make his father take time off from work, nothing would happen to him once the caper goes down. John finally agrees to the scheme, and after a reconciliation with him, he persuades his father to take a two-day vacation.

Come the night of the robbery, when John finds out his father is filling in for the now-sick substitute, he quickly finds Lam and his men at a sawmill, telling them to postpone the operation. Of course, he finds out all too soon the deal's off; he's beaten up (again) and is left to have a deadly encounter with a buzzsaw. While John is occupied with escaping from his predicament, Lam and his men rob the warehouse, and in spite of his heroic efforts to stop them, John's father is killed. Upon finding out what all has transpired, John rapidly becomes a revenge-fueled killing machine, taking down Lam's associates one by one before finally confronting Lam himself.

With The Delinquent (released in the US as Street Gangs of Hong Kong), Kuang soloed on the script, writing a sad character study with a strong dose of violence that is always to be expected from a Cheh movie. (Had he done this as a collaboration with Cheh, I'm certain the emphasis would've been more on action.) Limited characterization behind the three lead parts hampers our empathizing with them, to a degree; John is adequately defined, his father has hints of complexity, but Elaine serves no real purpose beyond being rescued by John a couple of times or being an intermediary for him and his mom. (Lily Li gives a good performance, anyway.) Going past these minor problems, Kuang has crafted a cautionary tale where the moral is delivered like a sledgehammer between the eyes.

The original HK trailer for TD (included on the IVL DVD) promised audiences a "NEW KIND OF PRODUCTION" about "THE WRATH OF YOUTH EXPLODING LIKE A VOLCANO" that "WILL MOVIE (sic) YOU......AND EXCITE YOU!" and co-directors Cheh and Cheh-hung gave the people what they wanted. As for their joint effort on TD, it's commonly assumed the directing duties were divided, with Cheh-hung overseeing the dramatic, documentary-like scenes and Cheh handling the ones heavy on action (and his trademark "zoom" shots, though they're actually well-placed here). However, if we know anything of their filmographies, we see both were capable of versatility; based on this, it's more likely Cheh did most of the latter while Cheh-hung did most of the former. It's also possible Cheh saw something particular in Cheh-hung's own films that made him the choice for co-directing TD, because if Cheh had the likes of Wu Ma or Pao Hsueh-li on duty for this, we would not have had the level of emotional drama the movie has. Further, I think the two fed off the creative energies of each other, which is why their styles combine favorably in the completed picture, and TD ranks up there with their most analyzed films.

One of the "regulars" in Cheh movies of the late '60s through the early '70s, Wong Chung practically stepped out of obscurity to his first starring part. Whether TD was written for him or not, and considering all he's given to do during the feature (he's onscreen most of the time), it's gratifying to see the confidence the filmmakers had in letting Chung carry the bulk of the movie. He excels as John, portraying a likeable teenager with a chip on his shoulder who wants the world, and he wants it now. He makes a habit of following the impulses of youth without considering the consequences, from fighting anybody who teases him to jumping at the chance to have sex with a woman (when his girlfriend is saving herself until marriage). Only when he lets himself get involved with Boss Lam, he gets in over his head, with his father caught in the middle. He redeems himself by avenging his father's death in a burst of (volcanic) fury.

It is that very violence (along with the sexual content) which earned TD its (HK) Category "2B" rating (an "R" in the US). All of the film's fight choreography by Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai is above average, but it's the 12-minute finale that always gets discussed. The nonstop barrage of brutality and death as distributed by John, culminating in one of the most darkest endings in any Shaw production, is stunning to behold. (It still chills me to the bone after multiple views.) This climax alone should've made Chung another big Shaw star, but he would eventually be overshadowed (in director Cheh's eyes) by his next co-star, Fu Sheng (in Police Force), leaving him to nearly fade into the background before he took up directing his own movies. (What his career would've been like if Fu Sheng never arrived on the scene, I can't guess.)

Seen today, The Delinquent isn't as slick as today's HK flicks, but it still works, though anyone who craves action over melodrama may squirm during the downbeat material as they wait for the next fight scene. With a look of impressive authenticity due to extensive location filming, the film's depiction of a life in the slums, where the people settle for just "getting ahead", says much about their living situation; not once are words like "college" or "job training" ever brought up in the entire 101 minutes. If John didn't know he had other options, or if he did, and he never found the incentive to break away from the cycle of poverty, then that's the greatest tragedy of all.

Brother Fang says..."A worthwhile buy for fans of Chang Cheh, the underrated Kuei Cheh-hung and the criminally-ignored Wong Chung! For the uncertain, try it out by borrowing or renting! Remember, with the volume of mature content in this, do NOT play it with children or overly sensitive people around!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - While you still can, purchase it from PlayAsia by clicking here.


  1. This is a great write up on a movie that seems to get very little mention. I think Kuei might have had more influence over this movie than Cheh. It has a lot more of Kuei's gritty style. I believe it was possibly a means of getting him some notice by having Cheh's name attached. It also appears to be his version of BOXER FROM SHANTUNG. I would really love to see Kuei's PAYMENT IN BLOOD, his first modern crime film, get a DVD release, but I think I read on the ZiiEagle site that the elements for that title were not suitable for restoration.

  2. Thank you, venoms5!

    The fact the action's good here is a given, so I decided to emphasize the qualities of the story, Cheh-hung and Wang Chung!

    So you feel this was Cheh-hung's project to begin with? That's quite possible! Whether it was his or Cheh's, the point seems to be people liked Cheh-hung's directing, and only recently are his films getting proper recognition.

    He and Sun Chung both got a boost from the Cheh name, and Chung outlasted Cheh-hung by ten years on making movies. It's like he went over the edge more than Chung did with later ventures, but he burned out quicker.

    I'd also say if David Chiang had left Shaw earlier (in addition to Fu Sheng never arriving on the scene), Wang Chung might've had more lead roles come his way! Oh, well....

  3. I don't know, really. It only looks more like a Kuei movie than a Chang Cheh one especially when compared to his other movies.

    Apparently Kuei migrated to America and expected to get into Hollywood, but it never happened. I remember somebody telling me he ended up running a pizza joint instead.

  4. Cheh-hung (possibly) wound up running a pizza place? Whoa! I wonder how good the pizza was? :o)

    I'd say since he arrived in the US during the '80s, his timing was bad! (Jackie Chan wasn't even big business yet.) If he could've shown up around the time John Woo did (especially if he was in good health), he might've had a better chance, even if he had to start in "B" movies.

    Have you seen any later Wang Chung movies (including ones he also directed), venoms5? How are they?

  5. Yeah, I've got his three Shaw directed crime pictures. THE INFORMER was just so-so, but the other two were really good and had some of the same neolithic looking actors from the nasty HK LAST HOUSE clone, THE BEASTS (1980).

    The only thing I remember vividly about THE INFORMER is that one scene in a club you hear the same disco song that was later used in Romero's CREEPSHOW during the 'Father's Day' segment.

  6. I'll be on the lookout for those, though it appears many of Wang Chung's later Shaws (and what post-Shaw movies have made it to DVD) are hard to come by.

    I'm playing the The Proud Youth now, a '78 Sun Chung wuxia movie where Chung has a good supporting role! It really has been a while since I've looked at it; it's as strong a film as The Avenging Eagle or The Deadly Breaking Sword!