Many Hong Kong filmmakers and filmgoers are addicted to what I like to call Absurdist Hong Kong — a subgenre of Hong Kong-produced action/comedy films that seems to describe 2 out of every 3 Hong Kong films I’ve seen over my lifetime. The main conventions of Absurdist HK films is a sequence of bloody carnage involving the brutal deaths of multiple lives by brutal means (re: not funny), followed immediately by screwball high jinks and “comedy” such as fart and potty jokes. It’s quite a specific blend of genres and themes, and if you’re not used to it (or have never seen it before) then it will be shocking.
Take Jet Li’s 1993 High Risk, for example, which has a sequence halfway through where, after witnessing mercenaries violently butcher about 50 people in cold-blood, a reporter races into a bathroom to hide. How does she hide? Well, she closes the bathroom stall, pulls down her panties, sits on the toilet, and pretends to read a newspaper. All this while one of the merc is stalking outside her bathroom stall. It is at this point that anyone with an inkling of what the word “appropriateness” means asks themselves: Why? The only reason I can think of is that writer/director Wong Jing though it would be funny. Is it? No, not really. And that, unfortunately, describes much of High Risk and Absurdist HK films in general.
High Risk opens with Hong Kong Army Captain Kit Li (Jet Li) witnessing the slaughter of his wife, child, and a busload of children at the hands of a mercenary name the Doctor (Kelvin Wong). Broken and defeated, Kit retires, and becomes the stunt double for a flamboyant and skirt chasing Hong Kong movie star name Frankie (Jacky Cheung, doing his best Jackie Chan impression). When Frankie and his entourage, including Kit, attends a V.I.P. showing of some expensive jewelry at a new grand hotel, things take a turn for the worst. The Doctor, it seems, has resurfaced, and he has plans to hijack the whole hotel! Before you can say, “Where’s John McClane when you need him?” things are taking a turn for the worst, and it’s Die Hard all over again.
High Risk was written and directed by Jing Wong, whose name I have heard over and over again. Apparently those who adore these Absurdist HK films love Jing Wong. Having never seen any of his previous films (at least I don’t remember them if I did) I must say that if this is “standard Jing Wong”, then I will be avoiding his name from now on. Not only does the whole convention of Absurdist HK films leave me feeling stupefied, but also with each film I see I leave having lost a little more faith in Hong Kong as a legitimate film industry. Is this what people there consider “great entertainment”? My God, there must be something in the water!
The acting and action throughout is fine if you like this sort of movie. Jet Li moves through the film as the only serious character, and I don’t believe he falls into “goofball” territory once. The same can’t be said for Jacky Cheung, who after witnessing the shooting of dozens of innocent people in a hotel lobby, somehow ends up with a dead victim’s hand clutching at his scrotum. (Yet another “comedic moment” courtesy of Mister Jing Wong. *sigh*) Besides Kit and Frankie, the movie is also unfocused, with much of the screen time devoted to secondary characters like a hotel worker and her cop boyfriend, a reporter and her cameraman, and Frankie and his father.
The direction by Wong is uninvolving and seems spur of the moment, with scenes flashing on by without any impact. But the film is still an Absurdist HK lover’s dream. Everything is here, from bathroom jokes to atrocious English subtitles to “high jinks”-inspired music that makes you think you’re watching a Warner Brothers cartoon. The action is sometimes too chaotic and there are plenty of Hong Kong bullet squibs at work — the kind that seems to pop like cheap firecrackers instead of actual bullets. What I mean to say is, High Risk is as fake from top to bottom, side to side, and beginning to end as Frankie Lone’s kung fu prowess. But if you like this kind of stuff, you’ll be in Heaven.
That isn’t to say High Risk is completely without merit for those of us who flinches at the film’s unbelievable coarseness. There are some funny moments that will make you laugh despite yourself, but taken in context with the rest of the movie, and the sea of blood and carnage, you will no doubt feel a little awkward about having laughed. “Awkward,” it seems, is a word Absurdist HK filmmakers do not have in their vocabulary.
Jing Wong, Corey Yuen (director) / Jing Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Jacky Cheung …. Frankie Lone
Charlie Cho …. Charlie
Billy Chow …. Bond
Valerie Chow …. Fai-Fai