Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On the Run

Director: Alfred Cheung
Starring: Yuen Biao, Patricia Ha, Charlie Chin

I first heard about this film when it came out in 1988, courtesy of the fanzine, M.A.M.A. (Martial Arts Movie Associates). The review (written by Bill Connelly) was a very positive one, but at the time I was mostly interested in fight films and wasn't too keen on seeing a moody melodrama. Besides, the idea of a film starring Yuen Biao in which he doesn't perform a single martial arts move seemed absolutely perverse. "How good can this be?" I naively asked myself...

Fast forward a few years and after having read several more equally hyped reviews, I finally got my hands on a video dupe of what has turned out to be one of the best, most adrenalizing  and certainly bleakest films ever to come out of Hong Kong. To put it mildly, I was floored.

On the Run is one of those films that directly addressed the fear and anxiety of the impending 1997 takeover by Mainland China. It did this via a Film Noir sophistication that I had not previously seen in a Chinese movie. This is one of the very best examples of Film Noir ever made at any time, from any country. I've watched it many times over the last twenty or so years and it has never ceased to awe me.

In the film, Yuen Biao plays a cop who asks his estranged wife (who also works in the police department) to  hold off on their divorce long enough for him to leave Hong Kong. She is assassinated by a httwoman from the Mainland (played by Pat Ha). Yuen chases and catches her only to find that she was hired by his own police chief (played by Charlie Chin). Seems Yuen's wife was investigating the corrupt chief and got a little too close for comfort. Now both cop and hitwoman must flee together to avoid a similar fate.

The film's director was Alfred Cheung. Cheung had previously been known for mild comedies. There is literally nothing in his resume that even remotely hints that he's capable of something like this. It's maddening that he didn't get more opportunities to do this kind of movie. Or perhaps, he shot his dramatic load all in one picture?

Yuen Biao turns in arguably the role of his career as the bitter, embattled cop. Though his character is ultimately a sympathetic one, it is not without it's dark side. Case in point, he is initially enraged that the hitwoman murdered his soon to be ex-wife NOT so much for any apparent feelings he had for her, but because through her sponsering, she was his one chance to get out of Hong Kong! Pat Ha plays the hitwoman with an icy grace that's quite breathtaking to watch. Initially cold and distant, her character eventually warms a little to Yuen and especially Yuen's young daughter. These scenes with the young girl are especially clever since this was the woman who murdered her mother! The fact that you are allowed to somewhat forget this is a tribute to just how powerful and strangely charming these scenes are. Charlie Chin had spent the majority of his career in various comedic roles (He was a prominent member of Sammo Hung's Lucky Stars cast). Here he turns in a powerful performance as the lead villian that makes you realize that he was likely and sadly miscast in all of those comedies. His equally corrupt police gang are played by Yuen Wah, Phillip Ko and Lo Lieh, again all prominent martial arts actors playing brilliantly against type by not throwing a single punch or kung fu kick and instead scoring knockouts through the force of their performances. There is apparently alot of untapped acting talent among some of the old school pugilists.

On the Run is one of my favorite films and one of the best I've ever seen, period.

                                                        **** / ****

***************************** SPOILER ALERT ************************************

I have two copies of this film, both of which were censored in two very different ways. The first version is the old, murky and oop vhs dupe I had which removed much of the blood (turns out there was plenty of it). When I finally purchased the dvd five or six years ago, the violence was left in (and the picture quality was greatly improved), but I was surprised to find the final two minute sequence showing our two main characters escaping by boat omitted. In it's place was a brief and hastely inserted text announcing that they were arrested and serving hard jail time. While this omission should not be a deal breaker for anyone thinking of getting the dvd (this movie is just too good regardless), it is a major annoyance that should not have been allowed. Hopefully someday a US company will purchase the rights to this superior film and reinsert the final sequence where it belongs.


1 comment:

  1. Jeff, mate! Thanks for your FB request. Because of it I've now discovered your awesome blog and I'm going thru it like if I'd been sent a cool fanzine in the old days!!!

    ON THE RUN is one of my fave HK movies! I really really love it and have watched it a dozen times. You talked about two different versions, censored in different ways. I own the old UK VHS from the "Made In Hong Kong" label. I believe it's the best version there is; It presents the film letterboxed, fully uncut, and has subtitles in the black bar. PROPER English subtitles I might add.