Thursday, March 10, 2011

Police Force (1973), starring Wong Chung, Lily Li, and Fu Sheng. Directed by Chang Cheh and Tsai Yang-ming.

(All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.)

ALLOW me to make a statement that can be considered a lesser form of heresy: if there were no Fu Sheng in Police Force, this Shaw Brothers movie would be no less watchable than it is now. Anyone could've been cast in his part, and fortunately for Sheng, Chang Cheh saw something in this newcomer and gave him those fabled fourteen-plus minutes at the beginning. Whether he was intentionally offering a taste of Sheng to pique the interest of HK moviegoers or hedging his bets by limiting Sheng's involvement in the film, that's unknown, but we certainly have an idea what happened to Sheng after its release (eventually). For now, Cheh's goal was trying to establish Wong Chung as a star, and months after audiences watched him play a juvenile delinquent, they now got to see him in the mature role of a cop (his first of many) in this "slice-of-the-'70s" crime drama, filmed with the cooperation of the (then) Royal Hong Kong Police Force.

The plot of PF is an uncomplicated one. When Liang Guan (Fu Sheng) is murdered while protecting his girlfrend, Shen Yan (Lily Li), from harm during a robbery gone awry, his best friend, Huang Guodong (Wong Chung), decides to join the HK Police Force, vowing to Yan he will track down the perpetrator and kill him in an act of revenge.

In five years, Guodong goes from being a cadet to Inspector, and when he discovers a recent police sketch of a man spotted dumping a body matches the one made of Guan's murderer, his most important manhunt begins in earnest.

The suspect, Gao Tu (Wong Kuong Yue), is soon found out to be connected with one Sun Zuozhong (Wang Hsieh), and the last thing the counterfeiter needs is the police bugging him because of this association. Soon, Tu's a marked man, and it's Guodong who saves him from being killed by some of Zuozhong's men. When Yan (with Guodong at the time, coincidentally) confirms Tu's ID, Guodong's moment to avenge Guan's death has arrived, but he realizes he can't do it because he is a policeman; Tu must be used to help bring down Zuozhong's criminal organization. Yan's disappointed in Guodong, but when she gets a chance to shoot Tu dead, she's unable to follow through, knowing Guodong is right.

With Tu in custody and ready to help police investigators, Zuozhong decides it's time to get out of HK, and he begins to flee on his yacht, hoping to escape to international waters. Guodong sends his four detectives off on a fast boat to pursue him (taking Tu along to help identify the yacht), while he gets on a police helicopter and flies off after them to provide backup....

After an intense release like The Delinquent, PF seems subdued, by comparison, but considering the movie was made with the blessing of the HKPF, there's little doubt they had final script approval. This is why parts of the screenplay by Cheh and Ni Kuang feel like a recruiting ad, but it's the HKPF's participation that gives authenticity to the police procedures we see within an hour and 41 minutes, as well as make the film look like it cost more to make than what it actually did. Cheh used his access to police buildings, equipment and personnel to positive results.

As for straight drama, while a lot of it is familiar stuff, the movie's pacing never lags, so the cliches don't get to hang around. The exception is Yan; Lily Li makes the most of what's written for her (and models a cool '70s wardrobe), but her character lacks real depth. Only when Yan stops obsessing over her boyfriend's killer to assist Guodong during his investigation does she get to be interesting, but it's too little, too late. To top it all off, she has to go into the old bit of getting cold feet when a choice moment to kill the murderer herself arises, which is the only serious lapse in an otherwise decent story. (What? Not even a flesh wound?) Her departure from the film after Tu's apprehension is abrupt as it is anticlimatic; what a waste of talent.

On PF, Cheh works with another co-director, Tsai Yang-ming, whose first film was the '72 independent production The Prodigal Boxer (a telling of the story of Fang Shih-yu that predates Heroes Two by two years). Cheh's style is so dominant throughout, Yang-ming's contributions are hard to decipher, so it's best to consider it more as a Cheh film. At any rate, he's on top of his craft here, with stylish location shooting in HK and involved action sequences, with fight choreography overseen by Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai. Save for a few continuity errors (like a "quick dry" Guodong after a dip in the ocean), this is one of the more slicker Cheh movies set in contemporary (1973) times.

There's a lot of good acting to enjoy here. Wong Chung is is ideal as Guodong, a guy who can smack a felon around along with the best of HK's lawmen. Wang Hsieh (The Lady Hermit) as Zuozhong is menacing like a bulldog, and Tung Lin (The Delinquent) looks properly authoritative as Chung's boss, a senior inspector. Among the many other supporting players, watch out for Fung Ngai (Fist of Fury), Bruce Tong, Teung Tak-cheung and Lee Yung-git. In the offbeat casting category, regular "heavy" Fung Hak-on is fun to watch as Guodong's partner (seen in this screencap with the obligatory ugly jacket).

As for Fu Sheng, he handles his screen debut better than expected. He manages to convey his acting range in what little screentime he has as Guan, and his performance is a natural one. He handles his action scenes equally well; his skills are sharp and focused during his scene at a karate tournament, where he takes on Lau Kar Wing (who appears later in two other minor roles). Guan's established quickly enough as a likeable fellow (and loving boyfriend) that when his death comes at the hands of Tu, it is poignant as he expires in a modern version of "heroic bloodshed", and the nasty nature of hs demise makes the desire for revenge Guodong and Yan share all the more potent.

PF is a transitionary film in the genre of crime dramas, HK style; it's a "last gasp" of an era where characters and situations were defined in terms of "black and white", and it's one of the earlier attempts to bring an audience realism through blood, urban grittiness and antiheroes. Guodong's initial motivation for joining the police force (vengeance) is as emotionally complex as the film gets, and for all the violence there is, it's not elaborately staged and meticulously edited. It's still years away from anything like Police Story or Hard Boiled, so anyone who sees PF on the merit it's a Cheh film should expect an "old school" movie and nothing more. In summary, Wong Chung as a '70s "Supercop" is one hell of an experience worth undertaking.

Brother Fang says..."Chang Cheh, Wong Chung and Fu Sheng: three good reasons to check ths out!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

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


  1. Nice assessment of this one, Fang. I was generally underwhelmed by this movie, but the ending did grab me. It will definitely be one I will revisit eventually.

  2. First time I sat through this, venoms5, I thought it was OK, but once I saw The Delinquent, and took into perpspective the order in which these were released, it's grown on me with additional viewings (including the ending)! Still, if Cheh and Kuang had no restrictions on the story, I think this had the potential to be bigger than TD!

    One notable bit is the last stand of Gao Tu; his brutal demise, intercut with Guan's dying as he rolls down the road, is a powerful scene. (If Fu Sheng were unavailable for playing Guan, I think Wong Kuong Yue would've made an ideal substitute!)

    As I once said elsewhere, Cheh and Kuang should've dropped Guan's girlfriend and recast Lily Li as a fellow cop who graduates with Guodong at the academy and becomes a detective under his charge! Her acting was quite good here (a lot of crying), but she deserved better.

    Favorite location shot: the roof with ALL those TV antennas!

  3. I don't know anyone who really likes this movie. Still, as you point out, the cast is classic. I think Fung Hak On's jacket and hair is awesome! :)

  4. I liked the ending a lot. Wang Chung ended up getting some kind of award(?) recognition from the police force for his role. I'll have to find the magazine article.

  5. @ achillesgirl: Thanks for reading the review! ;o)
    PF is mild stuff, in contrast to, say, Dirty Harry, so any bad rep it gets must be due to that HKPF "seal of approval", which restricted the story's content. Its entertainment value is along the lines of G-Men (with James Cagney) or the Dragnet TV show (and their respective endorsements from the FBI and the LAPD), except for the dramatic interludes and the finale where Wang Chung takes on all the bad guys! (The ending's a stretch, but it's laid out in a believeable presentation.)

    I got PF for Fu Sheng, but Chung and Lily Li (not to mention Fung Hak-on) are why I return to it again and again! (Though Chung did do other cop roles, I wish he and Cheh did a PF sequel. Overall, it stinks Chung is so undervalued as a Shaw performer, but the legends of Sheng and the "Venoms" loom larger than his, so....)

    @ venoms5: Chung getting an award from the HKPF makes sense, regardless of if the movie was a hit or not! Good luck finding the article!

  6. Couldn't believe how fast Fu Sheng disappeared from this movie. Maybe I need to watch it again to really enjoy it more. But you're right, Lily Li DOES deserve better!

  7. I agree, Amber; not counting the brief flashback later on, Fu Sheng appears in just under 15 minutes of the film (I timed it)!

    Another way the PF story could've been redone to have more Sheng in it is have him and Wang Chung join the HKPF after Lily Li(!) was killed by the robber; the two wind up as partners and track down the murderer. As it goes, it seems Chang Cheh and Shaw Brothers were truly warming people up to Sheng! (Happily, he and Li would move on to better roles in bigger movies, but Chung would do less so, which has to be why he turned to directing.)

    I take it you did like Wang Chung in this, too?

    Thanks for reading the review!

  8. I did, of course! It's not one of my favorites, but it does stand out just because Wang Chung finally gets a well deserved leading role. I just wish he would have gotten more, perhaps better, roles as well. Chang Cheh's misuse of great female costars will never stop pissing me off. There.. I said it. Thanks for listening!