Cheap Killers (1998)

Directed by Clarence Fok Yiu Leung

Produced by Wong Jing

Starring Alex Fong Chung Sun, Sunny Chan Kam Hung, Kathy Chow Hoi Mei, Henry Fong Ping, Stephen Fung Tak Lun, Lillian Ho Kar Lee, Lam Kit Lung, Mike Lambert

Cheap Killers

The question stands, what on earth is a gender-reversed "Naked Killer" styled Hong Kong action flick doing wangling its way in here? Glad you asked, as I don't think there's a single splatter fan worth his karo syrup that wouldn't enjoy the heady excesses of this blood-drenched revenge thriller! In fact, this is so grisly (by action movie standards) that potential viewers may best be advised to lay down a few towels under their televisions to hasten the clean-up once the end credits roll. I'm having a lend of you of course (!), but this is certainly a much more graphic action thriller than Hollywood has produced of late, thus happily nestling into the corner of cross-over filmmaking to qualify it a genre critique.

Sam Cool (Fong) is the top of his trade, a ruthlessly cold-blooded assassin, Yat-tiu (Chan) is his headstrong protégé. Together they are two of the most legendary figures in the Hong Kong underworld. They answer only to triad kingpin The Doctrine King (Fong), who harbours them as a liability more than an asset. But alas, each has his weakness; Sam fervently dedicated to his job, Yat-tiu driven by his unrepentant desires for the opposite sex.

When Yat-tiu murders underworld figure Ma to snare his woman, Ling (Chow), it would seem that the wheels are set in motion for the pair's undoing. Then, the messy hit on Doctrine King's rival Jim Yan goes awry; Jim's bodyguard Blonde (Lambert) left alive though partially blinded. It is a small matter that draws unwanted attention to the triad boss from the law, leaving Sam & Yat-tiu the fall guys. An attempt to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan ends in tragedy, with Sam gorily injured, and Yat-tiu brutally raped at the hands of Blonde and his men.

Two years later, Sam and Yat-tiu are mere stories of the street, myths bantered about amongst young triads to build confidence in new recruits. But the two legendary assassins are still alive, albeit living a life on the edge. Yat-tiu, driven to the border of mental breakdown by his horrific gang rape, has become a hopeless heroin addict. Sam takes low-level street hits to support them both, having become carer to Yat-tiu in his fragile state. Fate, however, soon plays its cruel hand when a chance opportunity gives Sam the promise of revenge against The Doctrine King, Blonde, and the woman that almost cost Yat-tiu his life.

"Cheap Killers", though far from his heyday as one of Hong Kong's premiere visualists, gives Clarence Fok the opportunity to exercise his often striking cinematic eye. The film is littered with incredibly captivating imagery, set to a pulsing score by in-house music designers EMP. Alex Fong has seldom been better, playing a range that runs the full gamut from cold-blooded killer to (dare I say it?) doting lover. Sam Cool is the narrative's driving enigma, his sexuality never questioned but plainly laid out in the undercurrent of the story's strong homosexual sub-text. Screenwriter Wong Jing never rubs the viewer's face in what is clearly apparent, instead allowing the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions as to the script's ambiguities. A very unusual tact for Wong, as he's never been known for being a master of subtlety.

Okay, so you're asking yourself what the hell is a gay-themed Hong Kong take on Richard Donner's "Assassins" doing amongst the SGM reviews, right? "Cheap Killers" is an uncompromising, and brutal, triad thriller that I am hoping many will overlook what is (unquestionably) its "alternative" theme to discover its strengths as a sometimes deliriously raw exercise. Chopsticks are rammed through heads, eyes gouged out in fountains of blood, bodies cut in half, fingers sliced off, and limbs blown asunder with shotguns all in the name of entertainment. It is a film whose giddily "slaughterhouse" momentum is only equaled by its tender emotional depth as it chews up the viewer in its race to its staggeringly bloody climax. Its strength lies in its ability to juxtapose strong performances against mind-blowing violence, and still gel together cohesively at its conclusion. The editing can be a bit off-putting, but Hong Kong films are not famous for their linear structure.

Universe's disc varies in image quality with a frequency that is simply all over the show, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this has much more to do with the cinematography employed by Fok than actual poor compression, or over compression. Fok has never been one to craft a tale as anything less than visual excess, excepting of course his recent "Century Of The Dragon" and "Queen Of Kowloon". Thus, we are imparted an image that contrasts from relatively soft in the opening scenes, to quite detailed in other passages. Colours are quite rich throughout; motion artifacts are fairly minimal, however the finale (shot at night) threatens to become a low-level noise nightmare. There are moments of motion artifacting throughout that the picky will find distracting.

For a film that was released theatrically with a plain old monaural soundtrack, the boys (and girls?) at Universe have performed a competent 5.1 remix from the original source materials (excluding some dire Foley effects work during the finale, gunfire sounding like Christmas crackers). The primary focus of the remix is to give EMP's musical "score" a bit more body, which is a fine thing in my books as it produces an infinitely more haunting effect to some of their more ambient cues. The biggest surprise available with this disc is the inclusion of outtake footage (silent with a cue from EMP's score), some of it actually quite amusing (Sunny Chan & Kathy Chow seem to have had their fair shares of laughs during production). Extras are rounded out with the film's cinema trailer (in Mandarin!), cast biographies, and attractions trailers for "Raped By An Angel 3", "Tricky King" and "Your Place Or Mine" (a romantic comedy also featuring Fong but, although I liked it, not quite SGM material).

All up, a fairly nice disc of a well paced, and completely entertaining, grisly little action thriller. To be fair, I loathed this film when I first saw it theatrically back in '98 but a number of Hong Kong aficionados (most notably Mark Morrison of Melbourne's have since drawn my attention to its finer points. With time it has (at first begrudgingly) grown upon me, and I'd now consider it an essential chapter in Asian gangster cinema. Albeit one that will probably someday crossover to a wider, and more alternative, audience. If, of course, they can look past the extraordinary violence of it all…

Review by M.C.Thomason

Released by Universe Laser & Video
Category IIB - Region 0
Audio - Dolby 5.1
Ratio - Widescreen 1.85
Running time : approx 97 mins
Extras :
Outtakes; Star files; Trailer; Attractions trailers