Director: John Woo
Writer: John Woo
Producer: Raymond Chow
Cast: Richard Ng, Ricky Hui, Lee Hoi San, Angie Chiu, Cheung Ying, Lam Ching Ying, Mars, Billy Chan, Tai San, Fung Hak On, Fung King Man, Gam Gwan, Helena Law Lan, Lin Ke Ming, Eric Tsang, Yu Ming, Dai Sai Aan, Kok Lee Yan, Lee Pang Fei
Running Time: 98 min.
By Martin Sandison
John Woo is my favourite director. His run of movies from A Better Tomorrow to Hard Target are some of the greatest and the action genre would be very different without them. By 1977, Woo had directed a few martial arts films; Hand of Death had come and gone, and was not a success. Woo decided to turn his hand to comedy, and his first movie of this type was the The Pilferer’s Progress. Thankfully, it became a smash hit in Hong Kong and set up Woo’s first run of hit movies. Fortune Star released the film, alongside a lot of his other comedies, some years ago and I saw it back then. When I heard it was being shown in my local great Independent cinema here in Edinburgh, I had to go see it again. Despite being a bad print with burnt on subtitles, it was a unique experience seeing such an early Woo film in the cinema.
Dragon (Richard Ng) Is a small-time conman who keeps running in to Poison (Ricky Hui), a nice guy who keeps happening to lose his job. The two have a running battle at first, but ultimately combine their talents to scam a rich businessman. Along the way they encounter colourful and strange characters, such as a father and daughter, who have a grudge against the same businessman.
Richard Ng is better known for playing various roles in the Lucky Star films, wherein he had some of the best jokes. The Pilferer’s Progress is one of his first acting roles, and he throws himself in to the world of the film. Interestingly, Ng retired and moved to London a while back, and I was surprised to see him pop up in a deleted scene from the British sitcom Black Books.
Sam Hui, one of the supremely talented Hui brothers, plays the down-on-his-luck loveable urchin brilliantly. A successful musician, the theme song for the film is a great piece of 70’s Cantonese rock co-written by Ricky and Sam Hui.
Appearing in a hilarious part is that great classic kung fu movie villain Lee Hoi San. His credits stretched from Jackie Chan movies such as The Young Master to Woo’s later Last Hurrah for Chivalry, and Tang Chia’s three self-directed films. Cameos come from the legendary Mars, Lam Ching-Ying and Billy Chan as three hitmen. Billy Chan directed one of the most rare Hong Kong movies of all time, Licence to Steal.
When I first started to watch the early Woo comedies, I was in awe of their innate Hong Kong-movie-ness. They really are insane; seemingly impromptu, containing intense energy and having a dark undercurrent. The Pliferer’s Progress being his first, it is very sketchy and not as adrenalin-pumping and interesting as his later comedies, especially my favourite one From Rags to Riches. However, the running gags and well-choreographed action mean it’s never boring.
The choreographer for The Pliferer’s Progress is the late Fung Hak On, who imbues the fist fights and vehicle chases with a wonderful off-kilter style. The battles between Ng and Hui are superb brawls, and this extends as they fight the businessman’s gang, led by Lee Hoi San. The funniest joke comes here as San falls into a bronze liquid, referencing the classic 18 Bronzemen, complete with sound effects. Some sequences hint at the magic to come from Woo, with tightly directed and edited sequences such as a wonderful mid-film attempted robbery by the two.
Overall, The Pliferer’s Progress is well-constructed, silly fun. It’s great to see Ng and Hui hamming it up with some decent screen chemistry. Just don’t expect anything approaching the level of Woo’s best movies in terms of film-making and depth.
Martin Sandison’s rating: 6.5/10