Review: Long Arm of the Law (1984)

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Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Johnny Mak’s powerful 1984 crime film Long Arm of The Law was a film for its time and a big box-office hit that year. Nearly thirty years later it stands the test of time extremely well and looks to be having a new lease on life, with recent incarnations on Blu-Ray, DVD and theatrically.

For Australian audiences, Long Arm of The Law is part of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) Action, Hong Kong Style film programme which is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive coverage of Cantonese action cinema ever seen on Australian screens. It’s a genre retrospective which has been created by the Cinémathèque arm of GOMA in association with the Hong Kong Trade and Economic Office.

Since its inception in 2006, GOMA has championed Asian cinema, particularly Cantonese and Mandarin language films. Retrospectives on Jackie Chan, famous Shanghai- and Hong Kong-set films from the 1920s-1960s, the popular tongue-in-cheek Jane Bond movies of the 1960s and inclusions in most genre programming. Last year’s Alfred Hitchcock retrospective is an excellent example of the gallery’s programming initiatives and organisational skills. The ongoing success of GOMA is much to the chagrin of some better funded but somewhat stagnant arts organisations down South.

The Chinese Boxer, from Shaw Brothers

The Chinese Boxer, from Shaw Brothers

The Action, Hong Kong Style retrospective showcases seventy films (nearly all on 35mm or DCP) with titles ranging from early black and white Wong Fei-Hong features starring Kwan Tak-Hing to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films, with a world of tremendous cinema in-between. The Shaw Brothers, Lau Kar-Leung, Jimmy Wang-Yu, Tsui Hark, Bruce Lee, Ringo Lam, Jackie Chan, John Woo, Johnnie To — they’re all represented with selections of their best films. For instance, we can see Ringo Lam’s 1997 crime-action drama Full Alert, arguably the best Hong Kong crime flick of the 1990s. Sammo Hung’s 1980s classic Pedicab Driver receives a screening, as does Chang Cheh’s Peking Opera bloodfest Vengeance, from 1970.

But it’s not one big testosterone party. Fans of Hong Kong’s action divas are well catered for, with martial arts pics from Jade screen legend Cheng Pei-Pei (Come Drink With Me) to Cecilia Cheung’s award-winning role in the contemporary street drama  One Nite in Mongkok. Again, with Michelle Yeoh (Police Story 3), Kara Hui (My Young Auntie) and Brigitte Lin (Ashes of Time Redux) films filling out the bruising decades in-between. At fifty-plus years of age, Kara Hui’s superb action-packed cameo in Peter Chan’s 2011 release Wu Xia is something not to be missed.

Kara Hui in Wu Xia

Kara Hui in Wu Xia

In the late 1990s, I feared that a film like Long Arm of The Law could become a lost movie. It was virtually ignored outside Hong Kong, and in Australia was nearly impossible to find on video or VCD via the Asian film outlets. The only sign it existed was a late 1980s LaserDisc edition which was of a poor quality and didn’t have English subtitles. The past dozen years have seen an adequate DVD release but, to my knowledge, Long Arm Of the Law has never been on Australian TV (SBS) or the big screen since its original showing in local Chinatown theatres. It has only been the last year or so which has seen it gain prominence in Hong Kong and China, when it appeared in the top ten of two authoritative lists compiling “The Best 100 Hong Kong Films of All Time.” A Blu-Ray disc and a new DCP print soon followed. Hopefully, Johnny Mak’s supra crime drama will now find a new and appreciative audience.

The early 1980s was a time of great change in Hong Kong, politically and culturally.  The 1997 handover to China might have been in the far distant future, but British politicians and mainland mandarins were beginning to size each other up in what was to become a prolonged and exhaustive battle of wits, with Hong Kong’s population being the long-suffering meat in the political sandwich.  Public positions were taken and tensions were often high.

The Cantonese film industry was also in a state of flux, with the once-dominant Shaw Brothers studio in decline and Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest Company in the ascendancy. In addition, the return of overseas-trained filmmakers such as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Ringo Lam and Mabel Cheung were tapping into local audiences, who wanted something more than the genre gruel offered by the movie moguls of the day. Ann Hui’s refugee films Boat People (1982) and The Story of Woo-Viet (1981) were commercial and critical successes. The latter stars Chow Yun-Fat and Cherie Chung, and I consider it to be the best Cantonese feature film of the 1980s.

It was during this period that Hong Kong was afflicted by regular and violent crime sprees being carried out by criminals from Southern China, raids that were organised by crime figures in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was seen as the soft underbelly of China, where the jewellery stores of Central and Tsim Sha Tsui were ripe for the picking.

It’s around this time that TV producer Johnny Mak, literally, enters the picture. Brothers Johnny and Michael Mak were a successful TV producer/director team who had recently found a niche in producing generic romantic dramas for the screen. Johnny was on the lookout for a strong film project which would help him take his production company, Johnny Mak Productions, to the next level. The “Big Circle” hold-ups had caught his attention. He began researching the robberies and the robbers. Soon he had developed a basic storyline for a movie, one which would also be his directorial debut.

Johnny Mak contracted screenwriter Phillip Chan to pen the picture. Chan was an ex-Hong Kong cop who had previously written the groundbreaking crime pic Jumping Ash. Actor Lam Wai was to star in the film. He was an up and coming Taiwanese performer who had just completed a long stint with the Shaw Brothers. Producer Mak then approached actor Sammo Hung to co-produce the movie. Hung agreed and also took on the job of action choreographer.

The storyline is simple: five ex-soldiers from Guangzhou province make their way illegally to Hong Kong, where they plan to rob a jewellery store and then return to the mainland — all in one weekend. A very profitable round-trip for everyone involved.

Still from Long Arm of the Law

Still from Long Arm of the Law

The gang is led by Tung (Lam Wai) who has been living in Hong Kong and has arranged the robbery from there. His team is made up of ex-PLA grunts who live a hand-to-mouth existence where everything has a price. They are opportunistic and brutal, as the opening minutes explicitly show. Of the group, the nominal leader is Chubby (Wong Kin). Another member, Bullseye (Lam Seung-Sam) calculates they will each make more money in one weekend in Hong Kong than a hundred years’ worth of their current wages. Rooster (Chan Ging) is more interested in visiting Hong Kong’s massage parlours than being rich for life, whilst Blockhead (Fong Li), a henpecked husband, is worried he won’t find time to shop for his wife. On the eve of the robbery, Chubby awakes to hear his grandmother praying for her grandson’s safe return… with a lot of money.

It’s on the weekend before Christmas that the robbers decide to strike; they are amazed at how lax the security is in the jewellery stores. What happens in the minutes leading up to the robbery in many ways sets the film’s narrative and will be a genuine surprise to the viewer. What follows is Long Arm of The Law’s first great action sequence, slapstick in its execution but deadly serious in its intent.

The gang now finds themselves stranded in Hong Kong. Tung does a deal with a decidedly slippery underworld go-between named Tai (Shum Wai), which sees the robbery back on in three days’ time.

It’s here where the director and writer dispassionately break down the myth that Hong Kong is the answer to the desperate and impoverished lives of many mainlanders. (Remember, this is back in 1983.) “We lived like dogs in China,” comments gang member Chung to a past girlfriend, Sheung, who now works as a hostess in a Kowloon nightclub. The fact that Hong Kong doesn’t offer safety or sanctuary to illegal immigrants is ignored — what Hong Kong offers is hope. It also presents the fantasy of returning to the ancestral village and living out one’s life in luxury. Ironically, it’s this dream which keeps droves of mainlanders illegally in Hong Kong. Johnny Mak shows the audience that being at the bottom of the heap is not purely a matter of geography.

Hong Kong is depicted as a wonderland to our fish-out-of-water villains: the nightclubs, the fast food, the luxury hotels. And it’s well done, not just a series of childish pranks or reactions — it’s subtle and often very effective. A scene where a small shrine is made up of cigarettes and junk food is played completely straight. Mak doesn’t talk down to or send up his mainland gang — there are no caricatures here.

But there is a dark side which the filmmakers don’t shy away from, one vividly shown in a scene where Rooster holds a gun to a woman’s head and demands sex. These boys might not be committed communists but they do know from first-hand experience that power definitely comes from a barrel of a gun.

Still from Long Arm of the Law

Still from Long Arm of the Law

In the days between the robberies, Tung is manipulated by Tai into killing a rival of his, one who actually turns out to be a Hong Kong police detective. Tung and his team’s reactions to finding out about the dead cop show how effective and brutal these ex-military personnel can be. This sequence takes place in a multi-level car park and demonstrates why Long Arm of The Law has a reputation as such a tough-minded gangster picture.

The officer given the task of apprehending this particular Big Circle gang is Inspector Lee (Ng Hoi-Tin), a true martinet with an almost pathological hatred of Tung and his ilk, describing them as “rats to be exterminated.”

The robbery is carried out in broad daylight and an unhindered getaway looks possible. But the gang learns the treacherous Tai has sold them out to the police. A series of prolonged street skirmishes ends with Tung leading his crew into Kowloon’s Walled City, a notorious precinct for Hong Kong’s criminals.

For nearly 100 years the Walled City existed in a legal and political limbo, thus attracting a lawless population. For decades Hong Kong’s authorities were unsure of their legal standing in these squalid slums. But, as in all good filmmaking, director Mak totally rejects reality and sends Inspector Lee’s men in to hunt down and kill the rats. This probably held great appeal for Hong Kong audiences on the film’s initial release.

The final twenty minutes of Long Arm of The Law has not lost any of its sheer visceral power. Full credit goes to Johnny Koo (As Tears Go By) for his low-light cinematography, and action choreographers Sammo Hung and Billy Chan, who plot the trail of bloodshed and destruction as police and ex-soldiers battle each other through the narrow lanes and stairways which connect this urban maze.

There’s a particular scene where cops and criminals unwittingly meet at a laneway juncture. A scene that could have been played out as high farce instead ignites a most brutal close-quarters gunfight — with moments reminiscent of the best bullet ballets from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

Director Mak subtly evokes the lead-up to the famous screen finale in The Wild Bunch, where the Chinese gang, like Peckinpah’s train robbers, have a chance to escape at the expense of one of their number. It’s then the film slightly diverges from the legendary Western, with a memorable series of quick cuts which deliver an image that must have burnt into the psyche of then young Canto director, John Woo.

Considering the violence and excitement of this extended pursuit, the closing passage of the film is strangely numbing — there’s no catharsis and there’s not a hint of redemption, nor any overwhelming feeling of retribution. It has a hollow coldness which leaves the audience untouched… or so you think.

Long Arm of The Law is one of the great films of the Cantonese cinema — and it deserves your attention.

9.5 dead rats out of 10.
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