Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On The Run Review

Made in 1988, Alfred Cheung's On the run stars Yuen Biao in a rare actual acting role that doesn't require his martial arts skills. Indeed the movie is quite a departure for both men as Cheung is much better known for his comedic films. The gamble pays off as On the run is a mighty fine entry into the huge Hong Kong crime genre and an excellent noir action thriller in it's own right.

When cop Hsiang Ming's (Yuen Biao) soon to be ex-wife is assassinated by a professional hitwoman (Pat Ha), he is warned off investigating the case by Superintendent Lu (Charlie Chin) who also happens to be her new boyfriend. Ming tracks down the killer anyway but when he reports the capture, instead of sending police to pick her up, a squad is sent to kill both of them. Ming realises someone on the police force is involved and that he can't trust anyone, to make it worse he must team up with the killer of his wife and run.

The plot of On the run is solid but doesn't really hold that much in the way of surprises, and yet the film still manages to keep the viewer on their toes. Perhaps this is due to the conviction the film has in delivering a dark and very gritty story without any of the distractions we often see in Hong Kong film. No silly comedy or romance subplots are entered into here and this is a huge part of what makes this movie special. The film is also exceptionally well made in just about every department and generates impressive atmosphere. In particular the photography by Peter Ngor is stunning, the majority of the film takes place at night and rarely have I seen better use of Hong Kong's famous neon light against the dark to add depth and texture to a movie. As a huge fan of night time set Hong Kong movies this has to be one of the very best.

As I mentioned before, Yuen Biao gets a rare chance to flex his acting muscles here rather than his fighting ones, and flex them he does! He's so good I'm genuinely surprised he didn't get more parts like this one. His pain and anguish at not only the murder of his wife but also having to team up with her killer is palpable, and it's all accomplished without histrionics. He's obviously great in the action sequences and one (very impressive) stunt aside, it's a very different Yuen Biao we are seeing here.
Pat Ha is icy cool as the hitwoman, who takes a shine to Ming's extremely cute daughter and manages to elicit some sympathy for her character. Again in many Hong Kong movies we would have had to endure a completely pointless romance between the two characters that would have stopped the film dead. Charlie Chin (doing his very best to look like Chow Yun Fat!) is fine as the corrupt cop and there are some fun performances from Yuen Wah, Philip Ko, Bowie Lam and others.

The violence is pretty nasty throughout and this is completely in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. The end sequence in particular is pretty harsh and far away from the usual martial arts fight, it's very much a full on brawl with everything and anything being used to bludgeon with.
Despite being 23 years old now, the only thing that dates the film is the score, other than that it could be pretty much from anytime in the last 20 years. The soundtrack is very much of it's time, I think you would be hard pressed to find a more 80's soundtrack. While some of it works, some of the cues are just wrong.

The film like many other Hong Kong films has a chequered history on video formats and once again it's up to the French to show this film the respect it deserves. As usual the dvd doesn't have English subs but the remastered picture quality is simply stunning and well worth the effort of tracking it down.

On the run seems to be relatively unknown amongst all but hardcore Hong Kong movie fans, whether this is to do with the fact it's pretty hard to find, I'm not sure. One thing I am sure of is it's a bona fide classic of Hong Kong cinema and a must see.


Asian Cult Cinema said...

Great review, i agree its an overlooked classic. Yet again the French release the best dvd, if only they put English subtitles they would make a mint!

A hero never dies said...

Thanks ACC, It's a shame the UK companies don't license the transfers from the French, surely this would be a win win situation!

Anonymous said...

I always thought of Yuen Biao as the martial arts actor, since I never saw him peform in non-action type roles. Guess he has more talent then I imagine. Speaking of interesting casting, could you review some of Stephen Chow's non-comedic films. I recall he actually made a few serious action/dramatic films, but can't remember which one it was.

A hero never dies said...

Anon, I never suspected Yuen Biao to have the acting ability on display here either. I do have plans to cover a few Chow movies but haven't decided which ones as yet.

YTSL said...

Hi "A Hero Never Dies" --

Nice review. Agree for much of it with just a couple of quibbles. Firstly, I'm not sure that Charlie Chin was trying to look like Chow Yun Fat. Secondly, I think the film shows its historical context in terms of the references to people wanting to emigrate from Hong Kong. (That's so pre-Handover! :b)

Re "On the Run" slipping under the radar of a number of Hong Kong movie fans: My suspicion is that people just don't Alfred Cheung (of "Her Fatal Ways" fame) to have come up with such a well made dark crime drama.

A hero never dies said...


Thank you for your comments and for keeping me honest!, I didn't mean literally that he was trying to look like Chow Yun Fat, it's more that he does resemble him a little, particularly in this film. As for your second quibble, I meant it hasn't dated in a filmmaking rather than thematic way. As the references to emigrating are so frequent throughout, I chose to ignore the handover issue in the review and concentrate on other elements. You are right of course, the film is dated by 1997 but we only after wait a few more years and it maybe made relevant again by 2046!

It's always a pleasure to receive comments from you YTSL!

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