When I wake up and start my day, I like, if at all possible, to watch COPS. There are scarcer better ways to start your day than watching some mulleted white trash drunk, shirtless, getting tasered by a Michelin Man-shaped officer who was out of breath the first five steps into the chase. It gives you a great sense of, ‟There but for the grace of God, go I‟ and truly makes having a bad day that much harder. You can always reflect back on what you watched in the morning and say, ‟At least I'm that guy.‟
Anyway, I don't know if Hong Kong gets COPS today, but I do know that in the 1970's if they wanted to watch some ‟true crime‟ tales they had to look no further than the local cineplex. Which brings me to the Shaw Brothers anthology series of Criminals films, each one promising to deliver stories of felonious misdoings ripped straight from the headlines. This, the first film in the series, was made in 1976.
First up is ‟Hidden Torsos‟ directed by Cheng Kang (Kidnap, The Call-Girls, Invincible Enforcer). Jenny Wang sure knows how to pick em'. She dumped her hubby and moved from Macua to Hong Kong with her young deaf/mute daughter to be with a lothario named Rongsheng, who has slowly drained her of most of her money and become increasingly violent and controlling. Jenny tries to flee in the night with her daughter and remaining cash but Rongsheng catches them in the act of running away and flies into a rage.
Pretty simple. I mean, it is called ‟Hidden Torsos‟ and there are basically three main characters, one of whom is bad, so it doesn't take a genius to figure out the plural implications. The story is very cut and dry, like a melodrama domestic trouble scare tactic film. Cheng Kang approaches it like a pure suspense piece, Jenny Wang and her daughter locked in a struggle for survival. There is a fantastic sequence where the little girl tries to escape, hitting all kind of seemingly mundane obstacles that are difficult because of her lack of communication and small size, like reaching a doorknob. This one would have surely scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.
Next up, ‟Valley of the Hanged‟ directed by Hua Shan (Super Inframan, Tales of a Eunuch). Hong ‟The Bull‟ is an average guy, a mechanic slaving away day in-day out without much to show for his actions other than a very pretty wife, Meijao. Well, unfortunately, Meijao doesn't appreciate her hard working hubby and despises their lower class standings. She regularly gambles with Hong's boss, De, and it isn't very long before De is playing grabass with Meijao and the two begin to have an affair.
Neat little tabloid cheating spouse tale. Hint, hint: they very well could have titled this one "The Meat Cleaver Killings.‟ The story is mind-numbingly simple but I liked it for the 70's appeal. These are not particularly attractive people and this is multiplied tenfold by the fashions. When De and Meijao start getting hot and heavy, it just seems more unseemly because they are peeling bad polyester outfits off one another. A bit of blue collar crime worthy of a Bruce Springsteen song- "They called him 'The Bull'...But his plate wasnt full..."
Finally, the film concludes with ‟The Stuntmen‟ directed by Ho Meng Hua (Kiss of Death, Monkey Goes West, The Flying Guillotine). Homeless drifter Chen Zhong (mutha'fuckin' Lo Lieh- Five Fingers of Death, Fist of the White Lotus) gets a job at the Shaw Bros studios as a stuntman. When he spots a hooker that is dead ringer for an HK starlet, he starts pimping her out, making a good deal of cash by passing the lookalike as the real thing. He catches the eye of the local Triad gangs and pretty soon makes waves in the underworld and carves out a nice little niche for himself, getting some territory and some men, and takes his golden girl off the streets. But, when Chen Zhong takes a young man (referred to as ‟the Kid‟) under his wing, it isn't long before his former hooker mistress is shacking up with his neophyte and conspiring with his enemies to bring him down.
Well, in my book, you cannot go wrong with Lo Leih as a pimp. Sure, I love him as Pei Mei and a stone-faced badass too, but he was so often cast of those kind of characters to see him as a pimp is a lot of fun. This segment is really a pretty standard gangster tale, guy goes from nothing to something but the criminal world bites him in the ass (Its Scarface on one tenth the scale). The title and initial promise looks like a nice peek behind the scenes of the Shaw studios and maybe a little bit about the life of a stuntman, but actually that aspect of the story is all too brief. I found it especially interesting that they used the Shaw's studios connection to gangsters as a plot device. I felt this was the weakest segment purely because it lacked the focus of the first two and it's story seemed a bit too large for the brief running time. But, at least Lo Lieh in a gang fight is always reliably cool.
The DVD: IVL, a Hong Kong release, REGION 3 ENCODED.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Printwise the film looks pretty good. Yes, you'll never doubt it was a 70's film, the age is very obvious in terms of some grain levels and general age wear. Colors, contrast, and sharpness appear decent. While a tad soft and a bit lacking, this can primary be chalked-up to the era and production standards. Technically it has some quirks. The transfer has some slight compression and processing issues, most notably some motion blur that hampers a few scenes.
Sound: Cantonese or Mandarin original Mono soundtracks. Optional English, Chinese, or Bahasa (Indonesian & Malay) subtitles. While the tracks are extremely basic, I'll take them over a remastered track any day. I don't mind the dated sound, the tinny, reverby distortions, and general lack of dynamics because all those things just back up the age of the film and firmly cement it within its era. Often a problem with these IVL release, the sub translation actually appeared quite good with no distracting grammatical errors or misspellings.
Extras: Remastered trailers. --- Photo gallery & Original Poster. --- Production Notes and Bio's and Selected Filmographies.
Conclusion: The Criminals is great pulp fun. It is pretty cut and dry when it comes to an exploration of morality and consequences: You're bad = You'll get your comeuppance. The transfer is just okay and pretty basic in terms of extras and audio/visual quality. Still, I will say for fans of 70's exploitation and the non-kung fu side of Shaw Brothers cinema, the disc is worth a purchase.