Director: Kirk Wong
Producer: Eric Tsang
Cast: Carrie Ng, Lui Chi Yin, Andrew Chan Gwan, Jeff Lee Tak Wing, David Lea, Connie Cabret, Alana Jerins, Michael Lewis, Angelo Lopez, Jaclyn Ngai, Benny Nieves, Theresa Quinn, Anthony J. Ribustello, Janice Sanders
Running Time: 85 min.
By Paul Bramhall
It’s common knowledge that many Hong Kong directors have, in the past, tried their hand at making a movie in an English speaking country. Philip Ko brought Simon Yam to London for his 1990 Crying Freeman adaptation Killer’s Romance, Corey Yuen explored the grimier side of Canada for his 1993 flick Women on the Run, and of course most famously, Stanley Tong brought Jackie Chan to Vancouver, I mean the Bronx, for his 1995 hit Rumble in the Bronx.
Not to be outdone, director Kirk Wong also took a crack at making a film in the States with his 1992 production Taking Manhattan. Wong has an eclectic but solid resume as a director, which kicked off with his 1981 debut The Club, a movie of which star Chan Wai Man humbly declared “Without doubt the best gangster film to come out of Hong Kong.” Wong went on to direct bold mis-fires such as the Flash Future Kung Fu, which attempted to mix the science fiction and kung fu genres together, to gangster epics like Gunmen, which saw disagreements with producer Tsui Hark result in a brave but inconsistent piece of filmmaking. By the 1990’s Wong seemed to have found his feet directing gritty crime thrillers, scoring hits with both the Jackie Chan starring Crime Story, and Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, with everyone’s favorite cop Danny Lee.
Taking Manhattan could be argued as being made in his transitional period, his previous movie was Gunmen and his next would be Crime Story, which makes the circumstances around its production all the more interesting. It’s worth noting that Wong made the movie essentially as an English language picture. All of the cast appear to be either native English speakers, or at the very least are fluent, with the exception of Carrie Ng. She plays the wife of the lead, and is the only character whose scenes are spoken in Cantonese, which amount to roughly 10% of the movie. With that being said, Taking Manhattan is exceptionally difficult to find in its original form, with almost every available release only featuring the dubbed Cantonese track. This was mainly due to distributor Paragon getting cold feet, at the prospect of marketing an English language movie onto a Hong Kong audience, at the time of its release. For the purpose of this review, the version being reviewed is the original with English language dialogue.
The story of Taking Manhattan puts it firmly into the gangster genre. After a bomb blows up the team mates of a New York city cop played by Lui Chi-Yin, he’s suspended by his superior, played by Alena Adena. Setting up a hot-dog stall with his wife, who’s recently arrived in the US from Hong Kong, Chi-Yin is happy to lead the simple life, even if it involves being harassed by feisty New York hookers who call him “Bruce”. However it’s soon revealed by Adena that the only purpose of his suspension was to take him off the map, allowing him to go undercover and penetrate the gang behind the killings, led by a gangster played by Andrew Chan. Chi-Yin reluctantly agrees, and after being taken under Chan’s wing, a game of cat and mouse ensues, with the audience never being sure exactly who is the cat and who is the mouse.
There are those who believe that Wong only really came into his own as a director with Crime Story, which was made in 1993, however Taking Manhattan arguably proves he had found his style several years before. While Taking Manhattan wasn’t released until 1992, it was actually filmed in 1990, and while we can only speculate, it’s probably safe to assume it sat on the shelf for 2 years because none of the distributors knew what to do with a Hong Kong produced English language gangster movie. Indeed it’s interesting to consider who Wong was aiming for as an audience, the story and themes all seem to indicate he was in fact looking for a US audience, with Carrie Ng being there simply so it could be marketed in Hong Kong with a known actress. Even today, over 20 years after its original release, it’s Ng who is all over the cover of the DVD releases, with main characters Chi-Yin and Chang nowhere to be seen.
The movie itself is in fact a superior example of the gangster genre, and still holds up today. Chang in particular steals the show with a truly psychotic performance as the homosexual gangster Chi-Yin falls in with. Imagine a Chinese guy with the voice of an angry Michael Caine, the demeanor of a Goodfellas era Joe Pesci, and the hair of a Hard Boiled Tony Leung. Chang chews the scenery with gusto in whatever scene he’s in, littering the screen with one of the dirtiest tongues I’ve heard in a long time. When this guy insults you, he goes the distance, even if it’s to Puerto Rican gangsters twice his size. He really does an outstanding job of coming across as an unpredictable ball of rage and nastiness.
Chi-Yin does an equally good job as the undercover cop eager to keep his family out of harms way, and through both of their performances a credible amount of tension and suspense builds up to a satisfying finale. While Taking Manhattan clearly didn’t have the same budget as the US productions filming in New York at the same time, cinematographer Walter Gregg captures the feel of the city well, and the often frantic camera work serves its purpose in creating a sense of excitement and desperation. Throw in the score which is a mix of electric guitar and synthesizers, like many Hong Kong movies made in the early 1990’s (Full Contact comes to mind in particular), and all of the elements combine to give the movie a unique look and sound of its own.
What’s interesting about Taking Manhattan is that it’s essentially an English language gangster movie with Asian leads, which for this reason alone makes it a rarity. The fact that it also happens to be a well put together piece of gritty filmmaking just makes it all the better. In an era when movies like Revenge of the Green Dragons, released as recently as 2014, take the same concept and still can’t get it right, Wong’s picture stands up as a tightly constructed and nicely executed example of the gangster genre. It’s a shame that the original version is so difficult to track down, and it’s a real injustice to Wong’s vision as a director. Just like similar cases were people have discussed if it really matters that a few seconds were cut from the US release of The Raid 2, or if we should be bothered that Celestial’s version of The Chinatown Kid completely changes the ending – when it comes to asking if it makes much of a difference that Taking Manhattan can’t be seen in its original language, the answer should be exactly the same – yes, it certainly does.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10