Dragon Dynasty, which put out an action-packed package of Jackie Chanâ€™s Supercop in January, serves up a double helping of Hong Kong genre cinema this month. The Enforcer, from 1995, kicks it old school, in the crazy-quilt fashion that endeared fans to the territoryâ€™s anything-goes style filmmaking before the China handover two years later. The award-winning ProtÃ©gÃ©, from 2007, represents a break from what Dragon Dynasty commentator extraordinaire Bey Logan calls its â€œkung furiousâ€ line of titles, being the more sober, hard-hitting crime drama in favor nowadays.
The Enforcer was one of star Jet Liâ€™s first attempts to break from the period martial arts persona he had established so well in the excellent Once Upon a Time in China series. The Beijing-born Li plays a mainland cop, on the hunt for antiquities smugglers, whose cover is blown by Hong Kong policewoman Anita Muiâ€”which puts his dying wife and son (Tse Miu, the Macaulay Culkin of HK ass-kickers) at risk, and obliges Mui to step in and help as a babysitter as he sidles up to the principal villain. Not that the resourceful Miu needs minding: by the end of the picture, the son, who had been told that his dad was a baddie, is happily tied to a rope by Li and flung at the mobsters as a flying projectile, a unique bonding experience.
The perfunctory U.S. title, used previously for a Humphrey Bogart picture and the third Dirty Harry installment, gives the wrong idea about the movie. It was shot as Letter to Daddy, a poignant but equally misleading moniker, and released overseas as My Father is a Hero, overlapping with the French-made Gerard Depardieu comedy My Father the Hero and its Hollywood remake, which also starred Depardieu. Now that weâ€™ve gotten that out of the way, itâ€™s a family movie that satisfies two demographics that in this country are usually separated by the PG-13 rating, but apparently Miu being punched, nearly drowned, and emotionally abused even before the outrageous, circus-like finale was too much for the Motion Picture Association of America, which slapped it with an R for violence. Hong Kong audiences are completely unfazed by these shifts in tone, and The Enforcer whipsaws between big, tongue-somewhat-in-cheek action sequences and father-son melodrama, particularly after mom checks out and Mui (the multi-talented â€œChinese Madonna,â€ who died too young at age 40 in 2003) plays surrogate wife and mother for the guys.
Liâ€™s frequent collaborator, Corey Yuen, directed. Its ringmaster, however, is its irrepressible producer, Wong Jing, who churned out movies like fried dumplings, nine alone in 1995. Typically careless, itâ€™s no classic, a something-for-everyone picture that springs to life when Li is let loose (the garbage truck fight, which as Logan says is like something from The Terminator, is classic). Iâ€™m always looking for handover subtext in pictures from this era, and when the marauding gangsters completely demolished a fragile-looking, glass-housed Hong Kong restaurant, Iâ€™d found my metaphor. The Enforcerâ€™s other attributes are otherwise right on the surface.
A much more serious undercover movie, ProtÃ©gÃ© is reminiscent of Hong Kongâ€™s Infernal Affairs trio of thrillers (adapted into The Departed) and Western films like Eastern Promises and Deep Cover, where the cop becomes more and more like a crook the deeper he penetrates the organization. After seven years, Nick (Daniel Wu) is practically a brother to Quin (veteran Hong Kong star Andy Lau), a gentlemanly heroin supplier. Quinâ€™s illness (in a nice touch, heâ€™s a diabetic, with an incurable sweet tooth) forces the cop to get more personally involved in the trafficking, as he maintains a delicate relationship with an addict, Jane (Zhang Jingchu) and her daughter. Monkeys on the back of the plot are Janeâ€™s scummy husband (Louis Koo) and Quinâ€™s Carmela Soprano-ish wife (Anita Yuen, another HK trooper).
The mechanics of the storyline, which was based on the accounts of retired undercover agents, hum along, and there is one suspenseful chase sequence as Nick tries to evade both his heroin comrades and his police handlers. But director Derek Yee (who plays an officer in the film) is more interested in the human toll addiction takes, and the scenes between Wu and Zhang, which end in tragedy, are persuasively acted. More Sidney Lumet than John Woo, and a franker and more realistic movie than is the norm for Hong Kong, ProtÃ©gÃ© was nominated for 14 of its annual film awards. It won two, for its tense editing and Lauâ€™s cagey performanceâ€”a male ingÃ©nue when he started out in the 80â€™s, he has matured into an actor of substance (you may remember him from Zhang Yimouâ€™s House of Flying Daggers).
Dragon Dynasty has given both films attention that other straight-to-video titles would envy. The original Cantonese soundtrack having been lost, the previously issued Enforcer is stuck with a tinny English-language track but has been given a fresh transfer and new interviews with baddie Ken Lo (different from his Supercop segment), the now 24-year-old Tse, and Wong, who regrettably stays focused on the film at hand and doesnâ€™t go into his more scandalous softcore productions. ProtÃ©gÃ© has a â€œmaking ofâ€ doc and interviews with Wu, Zhang, and producer Peter Chan, plus its theatrical trailer. And of course there is the loquacious Logan, who talks about the strengths and weaknesses of co-productions like ProtÃ©gÃ© (partners like China and Singapore are restrictive about content, and require filmmakers to shoehorn inexperienced local talent into the casts), the charms of the Anitas in the two films, and what to do when your rat wrangler turns up with white rodents and not the brown ones you specified.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.