Saturday, 6 August 2011

Killer Constable (1981)


Directed by Kuei Chi Hung

The honorably bloodthirsty royal constable, Leng Tian Ying is hired by the Empress Dowager to hunt down a group of gold thieves who have absconded with two million taels of government gold. Constable Leng gathers a select cadre of his finest officers for the mission. Along the way, Leng discovers a much wider reaching plot of a more sinister origin that trails all the way back to the Forbidden City itself.

Hong Kong's then reigning master macabre exploitation filmmaker, Kuei Chi Hung, adapts much of his extreme style of Asian cinema to the swordplay genre with this grim and wholeheartedly gruesome tale about the dark side of man, morality and the blurred line between right and wrong. Easily one of the most gloomy and downright depressing movies of all time, Kuei spent a good deal of time crafting this production and managed to come away with a strikingly well made picture, even if Hong Kong's then 'fast and furious' conveyor belt approach to filmmaking allows some faults to shine through. Formerly an acolyte of the venerable Chang Cheh, Kuei fashioned a distinct style vastly different from his colleagues.

The cinematography from then newcomer Li Hsin Yeh is a major standout amidst all the gore strewn victims and the Art Direction from Shaw's prolific Johnson Tsao is exceedingly accomplished. The oppressively somber atmosphere extends to the presentation of the weather as well. Nearly every scene is thick with thunder, lightning, fog, massive wind storms, or pounding rain. Much of this is recreated in operatic style by way of the Shaw Brothers' celebrated studio style set decor. However, a number of exteriors occasionally bring us out of the dark fantasy realm and into harsh reality.

Regardless of his alleged tyrannical directorship, Kuei had an uncanny ability at echoing pain and agony in a primal, and or a surrealistic form even if it meant capturing the actual pain of a stuntman on camera before paramedics arrived. His visuals were frequently visceral on a level that belied much of what was seen in films of other HK directors before, during and well after his time had passed. Kuei's unusual approach aids KILLER CONSTABLE well yielding a unique look about it that is truly different from anything else that was made at the time. The utilization of a Japanese choreographer (in addition to Huang Pei Chi's contribution) adds a noticeably different look towards the sword battles.

The hugely popular Chen Kuan Tai carves and slices an indelible image of a cold-hearted, but not entirely emotionally bereft officer of the Manchu regime. This is one of Chen's most celebrated performances and a highpoint of his long career. Speaking of the Manchu's (or Qing), the depiction of these invading barbarians as somewhat "heroic" was a brazenly novel script idea and only added to the dire aura of the whole enterprise. The script from Sze-To An finds a good amount of time to delve and explore the nature of criminality and whether or not some of the starving and poverty stricken "wrong doers" are guilty of any real crime. Also, the film deliberately confuses just exactly who the good guys and bad guys are--a fascinating idea that adds a layer of thought provoking substance not normally associated with this genre.

Despite its visual flourishes, KILLER CONSTABLE isn't entirely original. The film is a re-working of Chang Cheh's 1969 swordplay epic THE INVINCIBLE FIST starring Lo Lieh--a western dressed up in Eastern trappings and a decidedly and unusually less brutal Chang Cheh picture. That film had a particular scene (which is also recreated in Kuei's darker vision) that was later redone in John Woo's THE KILLER (1989) wherein two enemies are on opposite sides of an innocent blind girl who is oblivious to the tension surrounding her. The story was also made as a cheap Taiwanese kung fu movie entitled DEMON STRIKE, a film which also featured some of KILLER CONSTABLE's actors. The various export titles are deceptive masking the professionalism and serious nature inherent within the narrative lumping it in with typical kung fu conventions of which there are scant few in the film itself.

Rife with violence, bloodshed and an amazingly brutal denouement, KILLER CONSTABLE is a veritable showcase of Shaw Brothers patented downbeat approach to action cinema. While the film fell victim to audience indifference in Hong Kong, its influence was felt in other movies such as WHAT PRICE HONESTY (1980) and SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984). The film has mistakes such as some apparent editing of vitally important exposition regarding certain characters, but the script is extraordinarily well written and features a dynamic lead performance by Chen Kuan Tai. Far from being a "feel good" movie, KILLER CONSTABLE has a lot to say about the dichotomy of good and evil and mankind's penchant for cruelty.

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