In 1984, Britain signed the Joint Declaration with the People’s Republic of China, promising to leave Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.
Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 was released in 1984, and while it doesn’t explicitly deal with the Handover, it implicitly addresses some of the issues surrounding it.
Big Circle Gangs were made up of former PLA soldiers and other social and political refugees from mainland China. They often came to Hong Kong to carry out robberies in banks and jewelry stores with military precision and shocking violence.
Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 tells the story of one such gang, who come from Guangdong province to Hong Kong. They intend to rob a jewelry store and return to China with enough money to last them for the rest of their lives. But things don’t go as planned. When they arrive at their target, someone else is already robbing it.
The police at the scene notice them.
And everything just gets worse from then on.
Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 is one of those very rare movies for me; it’s entertaining as a story, it’s a very well-made film, and it serves as an excellent snapshot of a place and time.
David Lam Wai plays Tung, the leader of the gang. He’s the most well-known actor of the group. The others aren’t so familiar, and it makes it easier to see the characters and not the actors.
The cinematography is inventive and effective, showing us the story in ways that capture and amplify the settings and characters. A lot of the credit for that goes to Philip Chan, a former police officer who wrote this movie and appears in it only on a television screen.
See if you can spot him!
All of the scenes in Long Arm of the Law take place in real settings, like jewelry stores, the Kowloon City mall, as well as the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City.
In the opening of the film, as the gang tries to sneak into Hong Kong, they are chased by police dogs. I assume that in 1984 the Hong Kong film industry didn’t have trained movie animals.
Because as far as I know, they don’t have them now!
It certainly looks like the filmmakers got some help from police dogs.
And the dogs are very convincing.
Later in the film, David Lam ends up nearly getting run over by a car, whether intentionally or as the result of a misstep during the scene. Either way, it looks real because it is real. Near the end of the film, a car full of people is set on fire.
In order to film this, they set fire to a car full of people.
The sense of realism isn’t just in what we see on the screen. It’s also present in what the film wants us to think and feel. There’s a very profound sense of moral ambiguity at work here.
The portrayal of the protagonists changes over the course of the film. It turns out the good guys aren’t necessarily so good.
But then again, the bad guys aren’t so bad either.
By the end of the movie, no one can claim the moral high ground.
One of the most valuable things about Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 is the way it captures Hong Kong of 1984 both visually and emotionally. The clothing, the taxis, and the stores give us a glimpse of what the city was like, since it has changed so much since then.
I learned a lot from this movie. I had no idea there was a Chuck E Cheese in the Kowloon City Mall. Or an ice rink!
I don’t care if it was fashionable then, anyone in a tight pink sweatsuit deserves whatever happens to them.
Early in the film, the gang makes offerings to a fallen comrade. The choice of offerings says a lot about what life was like in China at the time, as well as the nature of life on Hong Kong.
We also get to see what may be the first appearance in Hong Kong film of the double-pistol and the so-called Mexican standoff.
So when Tarantino says he didn’t steal them from Ringo Lam, he’s not lying. Sort of.
Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 is a classic film. While it shows its age, it also ages really, really well, which not many films can.
It’s an entertaining film, but it’s also very affecting; I don’t think anyone can watch this film all the way to the end and not be emotionally affected.
All the good things people say about this movie are justified.
It was commercially and critically popular enough that a sequel was released in 1987.
Whereas Johnny Mak directed the first film, his brother Michael directed the second. Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 II, written by Tsui Hark, tells the story of three illegal immigrants forced to work undercover as Big Circle Gang members.
The gangs have become a big problem for the police, and we know this because Part 2 opens with two officers watching a montage of footage from the first movie!
Elvis Tsui plays Li, a former police officer who fled to Hong Kong for political reasons.
A number of people from the first film appear in Part II, but as different characters. Ben Lam, who had a bit part in the first film as a police officer, plays his friend Chik. The undercovers are led by Biggy, played by Alex Man.
The segment of the film where he helps these new immigrants adjust to life in Hong Kong, as well as life in the underworld as undercovers, is one of the best things about the film. It really adds depth to the characters.
Pauline Wong plays a woman who, uh, makes her living with her feet in the air.
While this movie isn’t in the same league as the first one, it still has a lot going for it.
Elvis Tsui turns in a very commendable performance, carrying the movie. The action is intense, well-done, and has an almost visceral impact.
Especially a torture scene that makes me uncomfortable just thinking about it.
It’s brutal and ugly and horrifying, but I am sure that was Tsui Hark’s intent.
A scene set in the old airport at Kai Tak lets us see what it looked like, and the action in the scene is worth watching too.
Like the first film, part 2 is essentially bleak, but also very emotionally affecting.
The end of the film is a classic, from the gunplay to the camerawork to the ideas that motivate the characters and their actions.
Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 II isn’t the landmark film that its predecessor was, but it’s still an interesting and entertaining film. It did well enough that two years later, in 1989, a third installment was made.
Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 III was written by Johnny Mak and directed by his brother Michael. It stars Andy Lau as Li Cheung Kong and Max Mok as ‘gai saam,’ or Chicken Heart, illegal immigrants who end up working for a local gangster.
Andy’s only doing it to buy the freedom of Ah Mun, a woman he met on the way to Hong Kong and fell deeply in love with.
Hey, it’s a movie. I don’t write ‘em, I just watch ’em.
Returning to the series is Elvis Tsui, again playing a mainland cop, but this time he’s the bad guy. He’s pursuing Andy Lau, and he doesn’t care who or what gets in his way.
He comes off like a communist Robocop with a few crossed wires, but he’s got a big knife, and a Norinco knock-off Desert Eagle, so he’s at least fun to watch.
There are several scenes in which he plays the catalyst for Hong Kong people’s feelings about 1997, so Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 III at least touches on politics, though none too subtly.
Speaking of which, any movie with a photo doctored to put Elvis Tsui next to Deng Xiaoping gets 50,000 bonus points.
The pacing is often frantic, the action is loud, and all the classic details are there; a pouty young Andy Lau, synthesizer soundtrack, overstated bad guys, guns with bottomless magazines, and more fun than you should be allowed to have with the kind of budget this movie was probably working with.
I should also point out that the young Andy Lau was pretty good at doing physical stuff; his stunts and fights here are not always doubled.
Besides, once you’ve seen the New Territories used as a substitute for Panama, what else is there?
Part IV, more commonly known as Underground Express, was also released in 1989 and also stars Elvis Tsui.
My review of that movie can be found here.