China White (1989) Movie Review

“The China White” was originally released back in 1989 and was the first international film from Hong Kong director Ronny Yu, who has since gone on to helm the likes of Jet Li’s “Fearless” and the forthcoming anime adaptation “Blood: The Last Vampire”. Having been surrounded by controversy for some time due to its supposed Triad involvement and funding and existing in a variety of different forms, the film is now finally available in its original, longer Hong Kong version, featuring added violence and a flashback scene starring Andy Lau and Carina Lau.

The film is set in Amsterdam’s Chinatown, and begins as current boss and ‘nice’ Triad Uncle Liu is gunned down in an ambush by rival Mafia and Turkish gangs. Stepping into his shoes are Bobby and Danny Chow (Russell Wong and Steven Vincent Leigh), who quickly set about protecting their turf and avenging his death. While trying to expand the business by hooking up with a drug supplying general in Thailand, Bobby becomes involved with Anne (Lisa Schrage), a girl who works at one of his casinos, and who unbeknownst to him happens to be an undercover cop. Meanwhile, a particularly vicious thug called Scalia (Billy Drago) plots against the brothers, hoping to knock them out of the game and to claim Chinatown for the Mafia.

Whatever the truth may be behind its funding, “The China White” is certainly a lavish production by Hong Kong standards. The Amsterdam setting makes a big difference, giving the proceedings a fresh look and feel, and with the green trees and picturesque canals contrasting with the usual neon lit alleyways so common in the Hong Kong gangster genre. The scenes in Paris and Thailand add a further international element which similarly ensures that the film sits out. Director Yu makes the most of the scenery without being too touristy, though he does pack in plenty of shots of famous landmarks and local colour, including some nice scenes involving elephants. The cinematography, by future “Infernal Affairs” director Andrew Lau is similarly impressive and gives the film a professional, though suitably gritty look. The fact that the film also actually features proper professional Western actors certainly helps, with Billy Drago his usual sinister self and Lisa Schrage adding a little emotional depth to her role as the conflicted Anne. Of course, they do stand out somewhat from the rest of the Western cast, which primarily seems to be made up from the usual amateurish non-actors likely dragged in off the street.

As a result, the film has the feel of an international rather than specifically Hong Kong film, and comes off more like a “Godfather” style rise to power tale than a traditional tale of triad troubles. This helps to distract from the fairly basic plot, though Yu does at least strive to avoid too much in the way of melodrama or faux-brotherhood shenanigans. The film is pretty amoral throughout, and never shies away from the more seedy side of the brothers’ criminal activities, and or pretends that they are anything other than drug dealing crooks. While there are plenty of righteous declarations of revenge and such, the film benefits from this even handed approach, and comes across as being a more convincing and indeed compelling portrait of gang life as a result.

The film’s reputation for bloody violence is certainly well deserved, with lots of brutal gunplay painting the screen red and some vicious martial arts brawls. Most of the action has a definite hard edge and is surprisingly nasty in places, with the female characters in particular not coming off too well. Yu in his prime was arguably one of Hong Kong’s best action directors, and he was on fine form here, throwing in some great stunt work and wildly energetic scenes without too much in the way of slow motion. The film moves along at a good pace, building effectively towards its explosive though fittingly downbeat conclusion.

This, combined with the usual setting helps to make “The China White” more memorable viewing than the average Hong Kong gang thriller. An effective mixture of Western and Eastern scenery, stars and styles that focuses on action rather than trite melodrama, it should certainly be enjoyed by fans of tough, visceral crime drama, and it’s good to see this extended version finally being made available on DVD.

Ronny Yu (director) / Victor Hon, F.W. Silleroy (screenplay)
CAST: Russell Wong … Bobby Chow
Steven Vincent Leigh … Danny Chow
Lisa Schrage … Anne Michaels
Billy Drago … Scalia
Ka-Kui Ho … Phong
Victor Hon … One Hand
Kwong Leung Wong … Mute

Buy China White on DVD