Pre-digital Hong Kong genre cinema holds a great fascination for me, not so much for the technical achievements, the jaw-dropping stuntwork, or the bonkers ideas they throw around, but for the ambience of their visuals. They can look beautifully garish as in many of the set bound Shaw Bros martial arts films or dirt-lickingly grotty as in some of the sleazier Category III films. They even manage to mix the two from time to time. The way Hong Kong is often portrayed is as alternately glamorous as it is dangerous. Decked out nightclubs with gorgeous women and men in white suits are a staple. Conversely, blown out ratholes where people in jeans and cheap tee shirts are forced to live provide the flip side.
It’s not so much that this dichotomy exists, it’s that these films give the impression that these two strata of society exist essentially on top of one another. There is the distinct sense that if a character opened the wrong door in a discotheque, they’d be met with a sweaty, stabby, rapey nightmare to set the old spine a-tingling. It’s as if everyone is trapped within the city, like a real-life Escape from New York, and some denizens have merely managed to crawl to the top and accumulate wealth which only further buffers them from the dregs beneath them (or so they hope).
Now, I’m no expert on Hong Kong films, and I’ll admit I haven’t seen nearly as many as others have, but the one thing which partly defines a lot of them from my perspective (particularly in the Crime arena) is this idea of the callous villainy of the wealthy versus the desperate ambition of the poor. This is reinforced for me through the texture of the visuals. The more realistic Hong Kong films have a certain grainy, desaturated look, and the worlds created are often filled with box-strewn warehouses, cluttered streets, and clogged up piers. I can’t say how close to reality any of this is (and that’s really not the point anyway), but from films like Lam Nai-Choi’s Men from the Gutter (aka An Qu), I would suggest that my theories only gather more support.
In his lousy tenement apartment, Wang (Parkman Wong Pak-Man) climbs out of bed in the middle of the night, crushes the cockroaches scuttling on his lunch, and ventures out to meet his ex-con pals Long (Lung Tin-Sang) and Brainless (Billy Lau Nam-Kwong) to discuss their big plan to get rich. But the police are onto Wang, and an officer is killed while trying to apprehend him, sending Sgt. Zhao (Venom Clan alumnus Lo Meng) into a frenzy. Meanwhile, fellow policeman Qiu (Michael Miu Kiu-Wai) is investigating the murder of Zeng Cai (Lee Hoi-Sang), bodyguard of criminal kingpin Xu Wen (Wong Yung), by Zi Jian (Jason Pai Piao) and their ties to each other. Complicated stuff.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Men from the Gutter is that it is, on its surface, two separate crime stories the only linkage between which is the police officers. Nonetheless, I would offer up that Lam and company are treating the Crime genre in a metaphorical way (while still delivering a cracking good Action film) and attempting to look at more than one side of the lower echelons of society in relation to crime. Zi Jian’s motivations are revenge and honor. He has no real avaricious goals in mind. Wang’s motivation is one hundred percent monetary. He gets very upset every time he thinks about all that he doesn’t have. He believes that money will solve all his problems. As the title suggests, then, Zi Jian is coming out of the gutter to get at Xu Wen, to drag him back down into the gutter. Wang is in the gutter struggling to get out by any means necessary. Zhao and Qiu are the forces of order, standing in the gutter up to their waists, trying to maintain control while not going under. In the gutter, a person has to do what’s necessary, but there is always the element of choice, and the end goal (personified by a freighter and its captain) is not guaranteed. From this viewpoint, the film begins to take focus as more than the sum of its parts, even though it may not appear obvious at first glance.
The film is also loaded with images of characters watching and being watched, predominantly in the narrative of Zi Jian and Xu Wen. Photos are taken of Xu Wen at a restaurant with Zi Jian in the background. After being questioned by Qiu, Xu Wen looks at himself in a mirror while crime scene photographers snap pictures. Zi Jian is shown making love to a prostitute in the reflection from his eyeglass lenses. Later, he takes a slingshot and a metal ball and shoots the image of himself in his hotel mirror. He checks his teeth in reflections in a store front window as well as in a fitness club mirror. Point of view shots play into this as well. At the gym, Zi Jian sneaks up on an unsuspecting guy (in POV) and knocks him out for his clothes. Later, there is a POV shot following Zi Jian (and in which he again checks himself out in a mirror). If these are just stylistic affectations or character quirks, they are lingered on longer and are more numerous than one might expect. I tend to think that the reflections are how the characters remove themselves from their world. By engaging with a mirror, staring into oneself, they are disengaging from reality and fortifying themselves for what lies ahead. Similarly, POV shots like those herein tend to disengage the viewer from the film’s reality (we don’t share what’s in the minds of the characters through whose eyes we see), targeting where they’re headed rather than what surrounds them in the moment. The characters are watchers and watched, within and without themselves, and a similar affinity is reached with the film’s viewer through these visual choices of the filmmakers.
Men from the Gutter is surprisingly non-exploitative, as well. Aside from one shot and a scene with some bare breasts, there’s no sex (consensual or non-consensual). There is a decent amount of violence and blood, but not nearly to the levels of gore showcased in some of the Shaw Bros both at this point in time and in the past. Outside of the film’s outstandingly heightened climactic sequence, the film is rooted firmly in reality. That said, the final set piece does contain acrobatics and nigh-superheroic levels of stamina. It also has a huge (and I mean that both literally and figuratively) concluding moment that will truly make your jaw drop. But the film never goes off the rails, and it does a very admirable job of balancing its elements. If you’re an Action film fan, and you haven’t seen this film, you need to (it’s available with subtitles on Youtube).
MVT: I love the character of Zi Jian, especially as brought to life by Jason Pai Piao. He’s odd and colorful, clearly dangerous, but also with a noble air about him.
Make or Break: The heist scene is marvelously orchestrated. It’s complex, gritty, and clearly blocked and edited. I think that, in some ways at least, it encompasses all of the emotional heart of the film as well as the thematic points.