Ngai Choi Lam (also known as Lam Ngai Kai and about a thousand other pseudonyms) is a fascinating filmmaker. For those who have only dipped their toes into the unpredictable waters of Hong Kong cinema, he’s the guy that made Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991), but if you’ve ventured outside Ricky, chances are you can’t get enough of him. Lam’s early career with Shaw Brothers has remained especially unseen and rarely discussed. The Lam of the Shaw Brothers era is entirely different from the Lam of Golden Harvest. Absent is the gore, the lurid cinematography, the stop-motion, the madcap performances. In their place is grit, grime, and ball-busting violence.
MEN FROM THE GUTTER
original title: An qu
Hong Kong, 1983, Ngai Choi Lam
Men from the Gutter is at first somewhat overwhelming. It introduces a lot of characters and plot threads at a breakneck pace. Certain subplots never seem to tie together with the overarching narrative. It doesn’t help that the main plot is difficult to discern for the first half of its running time. But eventually, the smoke clears, Lam’s intent becomes clear, and Men from the Gutter is absurdly engaging.
At the forefront of the story is a bespectacled hitman (Jason Pai Piao) who has returned from exile in Thailand. His mission? To take out a mob boss (Wong Yung). He is introduced as a coldblooded killer, but, as we get to know him, we realise his vengeful path is full of heart and one of personal vendetta. Up against both the powerful criminal syndicate and the headstrong hitman is Hong Kong’s police force, led by levelheaded cop (Mu Kui Wai) and somewhat hampered by a passionate but reckless rebel (Lo Mang).
While all this is going on, we also follow the plight of three young criminals who have formed a haphazard plan to rob an armoured car. The leader of the gang is responsible for the death of a police officer, and the reckless Lo Mang desperately wants revenge. Needless to say, the gang’s robbery is a complete disaster.
With martial artists like Mang and Piao heading up the cast, it’s no surprise that the fight scenes are supremely entertaining and beautifully choreographed. There is a brutality to the action that is not present in Lam’s later gooier efforts, and some scenes found me with sweaty palms. The film’s final action scene — a bloody showdown in a warehouse between Piao, Mang, Wai, and Yung’s entire mob — is incredible, eliciting many yelps of glee from my stupid face.
Piao deserves special mention as the determined assassin. Even with limited dialogue and gallons of blood on his hands, he makes for a sympathetic character. His skills as a martial artist are gobsmacking — he truly presents himself as a deadly force to be reckoned with. During the destructive final act, Piao demonstrates rather unbelievable feats of physical prowess, all the more impressive that they were achieved without the aid of effects.
A Shaw Brothers film grounded in contemporary reality is a rare sight, and even rarer to see it so fantastically executed. Though it lacks the downright lunacy of his most famous works, Men from the Gutter could well be Lam’s best film. It is a credit to the skills he learnt during his time in the Shaw Brothers camera department that he could create something so wonderful so early in his directorial career. This is an absolute must-see for both Lam fans and anyone with a passing interest in Hong Kong cinema.
Like many Shaw Brothers classics, Men from the Gutter has an excellent DVD release with brilliant restored video and sound. Even the subtitles are quite good. You can find it at any HK online vendor — I recommend DDDHouse.