Tsui Hark’s third film was banned by the British authorities in Hong Kong, apparently because of its references to the 1967 riots, which is something I don’t know a lot about although it immediately makes me think that unhappiness with the status quo in Hong Kong preceded the British handover to China. In any event, Tsui apparently re-edited the film to remove some of the political references. The version I watched on YouTube is cobbled together from two different sources, which is explained in an accompanying note: “This director’s cut version is reconstructed by using a surviving VHS tape that contains many of the originally discarded footage which are reinserted into a digitally remastered print to fill in the missing pieces.” It’s unclear to me whether Tsui had anything to do with this version or how closely it actually matches his original cut. From a little bit of initial research, I can say that it at least contains the theater bombing that was apparently cut from the censored version and replaced with a scene in which the three teen boys run over a tourist with their car.
The word you see frequently applied to this film is “nihilistic.” I found the early parts of the movie choppy and hard to follow, and again it’s hard to say if that’s because it was reconstructed badly or if that’s just the way it is. The basic story is about three bored teenage scions of affluence who learn how to build a bomb and set one off in a movie theater as a kind of lark. They are witnessed by a psychopathic teen girl who then blackmails them into committing more crimes. Eventually they run afoul of a group of American black market arms dealers and a local triad, and things go downhill from there.
I found the early parts a bit incoherent storywise, but it was visually striking from the get-go. Unfortunately there is what appears to be a real killing of a mouse at the beginning, and the girl also kills a cat in a way that, if it wasn’t real, is unpleasantly realistic. The film is very violent and bloody over all, although as you’d expect from Tsui it’s also often very funny. It paints a bleak picture of disaffected youth, and Lin Chen Chi is particularly scary as the manipulative, sadistic Pearl. Nobody comes off as particularly pleasant, even Pearl’s concerned uncle, Tan (Lo Lieh), who expresses his concern by beating her. The world of this film reeks of violence, corruption, incompetence, and alienation, and the finale makes great symbolic use of an enormous cemetery. Apocalyptic is probably just as appropriate an adjective as nihilistic.
If it’s incoherent at first (and maybe it just takes a second viewing to understand how it all connects), it’s completely focused by the time it reaches the finale. It really is remarkable how all the contending forces are brought together and blown apart. Nobody is right, nobody is good, it’s one morally-compromised group against another. Right to the very end Tsui mines this situation for comedy so black it horrifies. There were a few points at which I felt he had the characters running back and forth too much, but over all I found it a completely gripping tour de force.