"Hong Kong Godfather" Offers Entertainment You Can't Refuse
I have never seen a Shaw Brothers movie before. Come to that, I don’t think I have ever seen an honest-to-goodness, 1970s-style chop-sockey movie before. I know their reputation, of course, so I had an idea of what I was in for with Hong Kong Godfather. But I wasn’t expecting this kind of entertainment from it, that’s for sure.
As the title probably suggests, it’s a story of gangland skullduggery and double-dealing. The central characters are three men who once worked for the grandfatherly godfather who runs one of the big Hong Kong underworld territories. Said godfather is on the verge of retirement, but his decision to turn the business over to one of these men doesn’t sit well with another of his lieutenants. With the secret backing of a new gang that has plans to take over most of Hong Kong for itself, this lieutenant stages an assassination and a coup attempt, after which …
Well, I’m not sure that the plot is the main attraction in a movie such as this. Surely those who will buy or rent a movie like Hong Kong Godfather will do so for its fight scenes, right?
I don’t have a baseline for comparison, but I didn’t find the fights all that exciting or well done. The movie is almost halfway through before the first real set piece gets staged, and though the movie stacks a good number of them into the final thirty to forty minutes it does seem more interested in its plot than in the business of showing kick-ass fights. The battles themselves are swift and energetic and nicely choreographed, but those expecting Jackie Chan-style acrobatics or bits of business will still be disappointed. Mostly they consist of lots of yelling and running, and of blows and punches that are too obviously pulled. This is also a gang that likes to fight with big, heavy knives, so there is less of the genuine martial arts stuff than one might wish. On the other hand, because knives are so prevalent, we get to see a lot of strawberry jam blood smeared all over the clothes and walls and floors and ceilings.
So what makes it entertaining and well worth watching?
Well, this is a very old-fashioned movie, and it’s entertaining in the way the really old-fashioned movies could be. It seems that the Shaw Brothers didn’t just take their logo from Warner Bros.; they took that studio’s 1930’s-style, hard-boiled gangster-movie ethos as well. With very little revision, Hong Kong Godfather‘s script could have been a Cagney, Robinson, Raft, or Bogart vehicle. It’s full of vivid characters: the cocky but dutiful Lung; the canny gangster-turned-cop Man; the melancholy widower Wei; the kindly but hard-as-nails godfather, Han; the cowardly, weaselly Chi; the psychopathic gangster-on-the-make, Lan. (The latter would have perfectly fit the pre-Casablanca Bogart.) Though it is heavy on plot, the story uses it to efficiently set up the cross-cutting motives and ambitions. Most of the characters are usually angry with each other, and they talk as well as fight a good hard game. You might wish for some of the scenes to get over with or get to the point more quickly—the story is so old-fashioned that you can easily predict where it is going—but they link together neatly, and it’s real easy to get caught up in the blood lust and thirst for vengeance after the double-crosses start.
FUNimation’s DVD release puts this story on good display: though made in the 1980s the print is pristine and free of any obvious signs of age. But it is still a bare-bones release. There are no extras (save for some trailers), and it does not come with an English dub, only English subtitles. That doesn’t mean everything is smooth on the language front, though. Large swaths of it (especially a few scenes featuring non-Asian actors) seem obviously dubbed into Cantonese. So in addition to its other amusements it offers a subtitled story in which the mouth flaps are still often hilariously out of synch with the non-English soundtrack.
Hong Kong Godfather is not slick, and it looks especially cheap in an age when Hollywood studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars to trick out awful scripts with lazy 3D spectacle, pretentious cinematography, and gimcrack special effects. But it has a pulse and a drive and a story that makes you care about the people in it. That should be the first thing any movie accomplishes, and Hong Kong Godfather is good at connecting with the viewer in a way that should leave most contemporary filmmakers shame-faced at their inadequacy. It’s a terrific Saturday-afternoon kind of entertainment.
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