Review: Pedicab Driver (1989)

Directed by:
Cast: , , , , , , , ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Sammo Hung has embraced the fact he is a large fellow. Often giving his characters names that draw attention to his size — Teapot in Winners and Sinners or Moby in Wheels on Meals — or even referencing his physique in the title of the film itself — Enter the Fat Dragon or Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon — he has never allowed his decidedly non-traditional fighting frame to slow him down. This is amply apparent in Pedicab Driver.

Seconds after we first see him, Sammo’s swaying backside fills the screen. Although his character here is the more boringly named Lo Tung, many of the characters around him refer to him as “Fatty” and protesting his unjust persecution early in the film, Tung defends his honour by referencing his “Buddhist figure”. These frequent reminders of just how big Sammo really is cast into sharp and astonishing relief that the man really can move. He leaps, flips, spins — and sometimes all these at once — like someone half his size. This is a physical tour de force for “dai goh dai” (biggest big brother, or big brother big).

Befitting a film named after an answer on a census form, Pedicab Driver is a fairly down to earth affair for the most part. There is a slice-of-life feel to much of the story, which suits the fact that our main characters are your average men on the street, rather than the police officers or gangsters featured in many other films. Friends Lo Tung (Sammo Hung), Malted Candy (Max Mok), Rice Pudding (Mang Hoi) and Shan Cha Cake (Lowell Lo) have no grand ambitions. They simply want to make enough money for themselves and whoever they (hope to) share their life with to be comfortable. This mostly involves driving passengers around picturesque Macau in motorless tuk-tuks. Since this is not solely a tourism promotional video, the film ticks a few other boxes as well.

On the relationships front, Malted Candy conducts a lovely lady (Fennie Yuen) around town after an abrupt meeting in the street, while Lo Tung tries to metaphorically manoeuvre his way around an older rival for the interest of Ping (Nina Li Chi). The former pairing is played straight and sweet and the latter with a humourous slant, which helps to vary the tone as these relationships take up a fair bit of running time. Rice Pudding and his wife have quite a few children, while Shan Cha Cake is pretty much the opposite of married. Their various views on relationships dovetail in one scene with the potential to destroy a dream.

On the action front, the film is not yet five minutes old when two rival groups are brawling over a misunderstanding — caused by Eric Tsang in a funny little cameo. It’s similar in feel to the bar room biffo at the beginning of Project A, albeit not as elaborate. However, there’s still plenty to enjoy, from Sammo’s fast-moving fighting, to Star Wars spoofing and even action choreographer extraordinaire Corey Yuen getting in on the action, although his part is mainly played for laughs.

A later fight, and perhaps the film’s most famous scene, has Sammo Hung facing off against Lau Kar Leung — a clash of martial arts movie titans and purely as a fight it does much to delight. Unfortunately, as far as the plot of the film goes, this showdown is a complete throwaway, with no bearing on anything else in the movie. It basically becomes a fight between Sammo Hung and Lau Kar Leung. It’s a shame, especially given how meticulous Lau was at building his action scenes into his films and furthering the story through them. However, if not for this scene, there would be no fight between the two, so we’ll have to settle.

At least settling goes down easy in this case. It’s a real blend of the two combatants’ considerable expertise, both in fighting and filming. Sammo uses modern street style brawling, while Lau sticks closer to the more traditional martial arts forms he did so much to promote throughout his career. Shooting wise, it’s halfway between Lau’s longer, intricately choreographed takes and Sammo’s quicker, high impact cutting. It manages to be funny, varied and has a fitting conclusion, respectful of the legendary reputations of both participants. Years later, this match up has perhaps even more significance, as the knowledge of the vast contribution both men have made to the Hong Kong film industry carries the weight of years behind it.

The fact this fight is a dramatic dead end is one example of the film’s biggest flaw — a failure to fully commit to being something different. For all the film’s intent to tell a more everyday story, it still ends up visiting some familiar scripting landmarks. Master 5 (John Sham) makes a vile and repulsive villian — a pimp with a pimped-out set of upper chompers and nerdy glasses. Sounds silly, but his complete lack of anything resembling empathy or manners makes him menacing. In his introductory scene, he has a woman beaten during childbirth and the baby’s father killed as the child is born. Consider yourself warned.

A grim turn toward the end of the film has Lo Tung arriving late at a scene of tragedy. Some nice acting from Sammo conveys a series of emotions without any dialogue, letting his face tell the story. Then it’s off to revenge town, like so many films that have come before, for a rather downbeat ending. A few attempts at humour can’t paper over the raw violence of moments earlier. Lo Tung even predicts jail time in his future.

Although it may not arrive where it initially seems to be going, Pedicab Driver offers much of interest to see on the way. You never know where you might end up when you climb aboard a pedal-powered rickshaw.

7.5 glaring soft drink product placements out of 10.
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