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Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Lunatics - Review

The Lunatics, made in 1986, is an anomaly of a Hong Kong film. An unapologetic social commentary, its themes and story telling have no precedent and have yet to be revisited by Hong Kong film makers. At the time of its production the new wave of directors had cast a near revolutionary light on output, with some films style being more documentary led. The Lunatics is a natural progression in this style, with realism, in the main, being the order of the day. Making his directorial debut, Derek Yee took a real chance in the making of the film. Those among you may remember him as an actor from numerous Shaw Brothers swordplay and Kung Fu movies, including Shaolin Prince and Shaolin Intruders, both classics of the genre. The style of The Lunatics could not be more different from these fantastical martial arts old skoolers. Since making the film Yee went on to direct such well-regarded movies as Mon Cherie, Amour and the recent One Night in Mongkok. He has yet to recreate the raw, savage and meaningful film-making of The Lunatics. The film, not well received on its original release, has since then been marketed on the roles of Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Actually both actors play small parts as mental patients, in two roles completely divorced from any of their other performances. The star is Stanley Fung, a known comic actor (especially in Sammo Hung’s Lucky Stars series), with support from Deannie Yip. Tony Leung appears at the start and end of the film, lending an unhinged intensity to his role as Doggie.

Leung blurs the lines between comic and tragic with his opening portrayal of Doggie, whose attempts at playfulness with the customers at a fish market ends up with him wielding a machete. In steps Fung as Doctor Tsui to handle the situation. A news reporter (Yip) arrives at his office, wanting to do a story about mental illness and the people who suffer from it in Hong Kong. The plot follows the two episodically as they go around from patient to patient. It should be noted that the patients who are depicted are all extreme cases, many of them prone to violence without the right medication. Chow Yun Fats role occurs in the middle, as a schizophrenic whose living conditions are so bad his daughter is ill and son is dead, which is revealed in a shocking scene. The majority of the narrative concentrates on documenting the plight of the mental patients, how little people like Fung can do for them. The main patient is painted at first as a success story, as he is living at home and is seemingly fine, but his story becomes the focal point of the tragic elements of the story.

Chow’s performance, for him having such little screen time, highlights what a versatile actor he is. Considering the film was made in 1986, the same year as his breakthrough role in A Better Tomorrow, the two characters and films could not be different. However, even in portraying a mentally ill character his charisma and good looks tend shine through, making his characters plight a little less believable than intended. The performance by Paul Chun Pui as the main mental patient, is perhaps the best in a very strong array of performances, especially by Fung. The acting really carries the film, which is unusual for Hong Kong cinema at the time that concentrated mainly on aesthetics and action. Chun Pui conveys the development of his characters llness with disturbing force, providing two or three of the most uncomfortable moments of the film. There is no dodging of the subject matter here; the worst affects of mental illness are portrayed unflinchingly and powerfully. One criticism of the film is that in reaching an apotheosis of this it dissolves a little into sensationalism, but who is to say incidents such as those depicted have not really happened? Fung carries just the right air of desperation in portraying a man who feels he cannot really make a difference but gives it his best shot anyway. It is a rare dramatic performance that hints at hidden depths and brings a sense of authenticity to an already grimly realistic film.

In terms of style the film takes the lead from new wave productions such as Yim Ho’s Father and Son in addressing its subject matter in a realist way, with some scenes shot documentary style. There is a good balance struck between this and at times a more atmospheric, expressionistic approach when the time is right in the narrative. For instance the scene when Chow is running through the forest to find his son the visuals become darker and there is an impressive tracking shot following the characters. Also the music reflects this change in approach, with a thriller/horror like score used to good effect. This intertwining of styles serves to keep the viewer interested in events and highlight the films fictional elements despite its social connotations. The locations used are also of interest; with shooting on the streets of Hong Kong used to good affect. The slum buildings where Chow’s character lives are also exposed, conveying a side of Hong Kong rarely seen on the Jade screen.

Overall The Lunatics is one of the most important Hong Kong films of its era,and manages to captivate the audience in ways that create an antithesis to the normal entertainment value of Hong Kong films. It has not dated and looks and feels fresh and vital, with characters and themes that are still relevant today. One of the most important affects the film has on the viewer is to raise awareness of the problems of mental illness, perhaps still the most mysterious and thought provoking illnesses to be encountered in any age. Seek it out.

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