Writer-director Chor Yuen, best known in years to come for his opulent screen adaptations of Gu Long’s wuxia novels, turns his attention here to the crime genre. An all-star cast headed by kung fu and wuxia movie veterans Chen Kuan-tai (BOXER FROM SHANGTUNG) and Yueh Hua (COME DRINK WITH ME) populate this fast-moving and challenging, yet overdramatic tale of five would-be robbers pushed to the edge by life’s hardships, then betrayed and left to fend for themselves as the law closes in.
THE BIG HOLDUP is a fine example of drama filmmaking Shaw Brothers style. The film benefits from a well-paced plot that questions social conventions on morality, big-name stars in colorful roles, quality action sequences, and top-grade production values by Hong Kong standards of the era. It also means tomato-colored bloodletting and simplistic characters overacting in unsophisticated and increasingly implausible dramatic scenarios. Chor still deserves praise for managing to hold a potentially confusing, non-linear narrative together and ultimately producing a solid, character-driven and reality-based morality play about the consequences and complexities that arise when good people do the wrong things for the right reasons.
The film opens with a stylized heist as five masked and armed men successfully make off with five million Hong Kong dollars. Once the money gets into the hands of the mastermind of the operation everything begins to unravel. He turns out to be the police inspector’s own son (Chung Hua) with plans to eliminate all of his cohorts. With the only go-between (Tin Ching) safely disposed of, he has each of the thieves’ identities released to the police. What follows is a desperate flight from police as the five men scatter and recall how they were each drawn into such a desperate situation in the first place.
The plot should be familiar to anyone who has seen any number of heist-related films from the silent-era classic THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) to Johnnie To’s BREAKING NEWS (2004). This film doesn’t rank as one of the better heist films, nor as one of Chor Yuen’s better works. Shaw Brothers was never particularly good at making films that came close to reality and Chor was a studio director to the core.
The main problem isn’t the premise, it’s the way it’s handled. There are too many exaggerated and unreal moments that occur too easily to exist within the realm of possibility. Much of it could be overlooked but the film veers further away from reality towards the end in an obvious attempt to artificially build up drama. One particular annoyance is that police officers shoot first and ask questions later far too often. Maybe Hong Kong police always blasted unarmed suspects with impunity but I doubt it. In some ways, the police in this film act worse than the criminals they are after. Given the underlying theme of good people exploited and pushed to extremes by forces beyond their control, it’s possible that Chor intended to reverse the roles of police and criminals in regards to morality but it’s doubtful.
Chen Kuan-tai appropriately portrays a kung fu movie star named Ma Ru-long. In a not-so-convincing series of events, he is cast out from the movie business after suffering a serious injury while on set. He loses his prized modern home that is decked out in hideous red carpet and hopes to buy it back with the money. Chor uses what appears to be brief footage from at least one of Chen’s previous period kung fu movie roles as “film footage” of the character. Although Chen’s character does get into a couple brief fights, once in a bar and later with police, Chor is careful to keep it to a minimum. It was the right call considering that this was never meant to be a fight film. What does not work is Chen’s all-too-quick descent into madness when cornered by police.
The rest of the cast adequately fill more conventional roles. Wang Chung, who delivered back-to-back leading dramatic roles in Chang Cheh’s THE DELINQUENT and POLICE FORCE, is a drug addict whose related debts cause him to get involved with the heist. Frequent swordplay star Yueh Hua trades in his blade for a bad hairdo while playing Wang’s protective brother. Ling Yun, another frequent wuxia star is a penniless, former race car driver who hopes to fund a trip around the world with his dying girlfriend. Lastly, there is future star of John Woo’s THE KILLER, Danny Lee who has an abusive father, a prostitute for a mother and young siblings to care for. He eventually hooks up with the beautiful Lin Chen-chi, a bank owner’s daughter disillusioned with her high-society life.
The film has little to offer Hong Kong martial arts movie fans except an opportunity to see some of the genre’s familiar stars in non-fighting dramatic roles. It’s not a big stretch as most of the actors are better suited for such roles anyway. Chen is the only serious martial artist among the cast and he is one of the few genre stars of his kind capable of doing drama as previous films such as BOXER FROM SHANGTUNG and THE TEA HOUSE show.
There may not be much fighting action in the movie but it does contain some good vehicular stunt work which is a lot less common in Hong Kong. One scene in particular features some cool crashes and leaps that were shot in slow motion to get the most out of the stunts. Slow motion is a technique used several times in the movie but it’s always appropriate to the occasion.
Competent cinematography from Huang Chieh maintains the studio’s high standards. Huang began working with Chor in 1968 with the film OPPOSITE LOVE. After the huge success of THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS, Huang continued to work with the director on most of his subsequent wuxia movies, all of which benefited from the DP’s ability to make even the most mundane scene look attractive.
The film’s limited soundtrack is not credited to anyone. The tracks were most likely outsourced as was often the case. Aside from some generic orchestral work, there is excellent use of avant garde jazz numbers during action scenes which enhances the tension.
Chor Yuen may not have had a strong personal style as a filmmaker like Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-leung but he was versatile and dependable as THE BIG HOLDUP suggests. It’s a film that overcomes potentially crippling faults, particularly dated acting and a contrived ending, through its strong casting, tight pacing and ability to draw the viewer in. Looking at the story from a distance with its questioning of what’s right and wrong, Chor is actually working with a high concept that could be brilliant if redone with greater maturity. It seems there have been some attempts, likely unintentional. One modern example I can think of is NEW POLICE STORY. Daniel Wu’s internal conflict and complicated relationship with his onscreen father has much in common with Chung Hua’s meltdown in front of his father (Tung Lam) in THE BIG HOLDUP. Benny Chan’s film follows through more successfully with its concept but Chor’s film is more ambitious and deserves to be revisited by a competent screenwriter and director.
Chen Kuan-tai • Chor Yuen • gallery • police • Shaw Brothers • The Big Holdup (1975)