Xia dao Gao Fei

(Full Contact, Hong Kong - 1992)

by Matt White

Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Simon Yam Tat-wah, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Ann Bridgewater, Bonnie Fu Yuk-jing and Frankie Chan Chi-leung
Genre: Action
Director: Ringo Lam Ling-tung
Screenplay: Nam Yin
Cinematography: Lau Hung Chun
Composer: Teddy Robin Kwan
Runtime: 96 minutes

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Full Contact is not a typical Ringo Lam film. Before this film, Lam was known for his personal crime dramas that dealt more with the "gray area" of crime and punishment. Those films, starting with City On Fire (1987) and followed by Prison On Fire (1987), the highly controversial School On Fire (1988), Wild Search (1989) and Prison On Fire II (1991), illustrate an evolution of directorial style. City On Fire had all the themes that would be covered in later work, but the filming style was somewhat unrefined though it showed a lot of promise. Prison On Fire II, was an example of Lam's maturation as a director, coming full circle, as he became one of the first filmmakers to tackle the controversial issue of Hong Kong/Mainland China relations, using a prison and the inmates relationships to explore the issue.

The one director he is constantly and unjustly compared to in the US is John Woo. The reason is they both have highly violent films, but comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Woo's films are more concerned with the ideas of brotherhood and chivalry being expressed through the Peking Opera inspired "bullet ballets". Lam's focus is usually on inner conflict, whether internal (Chow Yun-Fat's character in City On Fire) or external (the Prison On Fire films). The violence in both Woo and Lam's films are extensions of the themes of their respective stories. Since Woo is more inspired by the traditional Chinese themes of honor and brotherhood, the violence is expressed in kung fu like fashion, replacing the swords with guns. However, Lam's sense of violence is more in line with the spaghetti westerns. The violence is quick and brutal.

However, like John Woo, Ringo Lam's favorite actor to use is Chow Yun-Fat. Ironically, this is Lam's most well known film among Hong Kong film enthusiasts in the US but in Hong Kong, it was Ringo Lam's biggest flop. It is for the same reasons that Full Contact was a bomb in Hong Kong but a cult hit in the US: It is violent, stars Chow Yun-Fat and is directed by Ringo Lam. Why the polar opposite in responses???

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In terms of violence, this film was released the same year as John Woo's Hard Boiled, a textbook example of action films. It was John Woo doing what he did best and Chow Yun-Fat was his main star in that film. The violence in Full Contact is more stylized than most of Lam's films but it is still more raw and brutal than Woo's Hard Boiled, which was highly stylized and the apex of slow motion being used in an action film. But Hard Boiled did disappointing box office as well (but not a flop) so that cannot be the sole reason. The film's main star, Chow Yun-Fat, is usually known for playing a slick character, whether it be a gangster in A Better Tomorrow or a gambler in God of Gamblers. Here Chow is out of his normal typecast, playing a motor cycle riding, leather jacket wearing and buzz cut sporting tough guy. This is a character Hong Kong audiences just were not used to, but American audiences could really have cared less. Lastly, the movie was directed by Ringo Lam who is just another director to US fans but in Hong Kong, he was a somewhat controversial figure after he made some off hand remarks about the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. Every movie released, directed by Lam, after that incident had poor box office performance.

Now's all said, Full Contact is an excellent epilogue of the "ultra violence" craze in Hong Kong cinema that started with John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986) and ended with Hard Boiled (1992). It is almost revisionist in scope, in the sense of how Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars turned the almost defunct western genre on its head. As mentioned before, Lam is not concerned about chivalry or "honor among thieves", instead he brings an urban cynicism that lights up the screen. The themes of good and evil are present, but they are a part of a grander theme of "human" against "animal" instincts. The protagonist, Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat) is a "human" because he lives by certain codes of honor. The villain, Judge (Simon Yam), is an animal because he has no codes, no sense of discernment; he is purely selfish. The focus of the film becomes the western type duel between Jeff and Judge, human instincts versus animal instincts.

The first half the film is set in Thailand, arguably the last untamed frontier of Asia. Jeff, a Hong Kong expatriate, working as a bouncer at a Bangkok nightclub, rescues his friend, Sam (Anthony Wong), from a loan shark in Bangkok's Chinatown. Now that he has angered the gangster, Jeff realizes that he and his friends need to make some quick money and head back to Hong Kong. In desperation they make a deal with Sam's cousin, Judge, an ice cold gangster with homosexual tendencies and his two accomplices, a raging nympho named Virgin (Bonnie Fu) and her muscle head boyfriend, Deano (Frankie Chan). They agree to team up and rob an arms shipment. The robbery turns in to a double cross as Judge was hired by the loan shark to kill Jeff. Sam, in an act of cowardice, betrays Jeff. As they head back to Hong Kong, Jeff recovers in a Buddhist monastery. While Jeff is recovering, his girlfriend Mona (Ann Bridgewater) becomes involved with Sam. Jeff heads back to Hong Kong and takes his revenge on Judge, using Sam as his pawn. His only concern in the second half is revenge; he does not even get back together with Mona.

As mentioned before, the focus of the film is the duel between Jeff and Judge. They have "three" duels throughout the course of the film. The first two are a draw, but the final one results in Jeff coming out on top. The initial duel occurs when Jeff's and Judge's gangs first meet at a kickboxing arena. Jeff's friend, Chung, immediately dislikes Deano, and a brawl ensues. When Chung tries to use a chair, Judge shoots the chair out of Chung's grasp, showing his marksmen skills with a handgun. Deano tries the same trick and Jeff repeats Judge's gesture with the same handgun mastery. At this point, both of their eyes meet from across the room, establishing that the movie is going to be about the struggle between the two. The second duel occurs at the Hong Kong nightclub where Mona is now a dancer. Sam is trying to rescue Mona before he incurs the wrath of Judge for betraying him by helping Jeff steal Judge's weapon arsenal. When Jeff and Judge duel for a second time, it is here, where the filming technique of the camera following the bullet is first implemented. It went on to be imitated in both Hong Kong (The Heroic Trio) and Hollywood action movies (The Quick and the Dead, The Shadow, etc.). The final duel, of course, happens at the climax of the film when both Jeff and Judge are shot in the chest, with the deciding factor being Jeff's knife skills as he hurls his butterfly knife (and the scene is shot from the perspective of the knife) in to Judge's throat.

The struggle between Jeff and Judge is just a mirror for the main theme of human against animal. The first shot of the film is of a Buddhist monk (the representation of good) and then the next shot is of Judge (the personification of evil in this film), preparing to rob a jewelry store. Jeff lives by a certain honor code, in an animalistic world. At the beginning of the film, working as a bouncer, he finds a couple having sex in the bathroom. He kicks them out saying, "sex is a holy thing, do it in bed."

Sex, in a way, is the distinguishing factor in this movie between Jeff's code of honor and the animal instincts of almost everyone else. Judge's partners, Deano and Virgin, have sex anywhere and anytime, just like dogs. When Virgin and Jeff are teamed to rob the arm shipment, Virgin masturbates in the car (while Jeff is driving), before the robbery takes place. Judge's being a homosexual is also an example of his animal nature. In Chinese culture, (which is considerably more homophobic than its western and Asian counterparts) the relationship of man and woman is highly esteemed but Judge is foregoing that tradition and opting for his instinctive desires. This movie has more sexual content (but nothing explicit) than most Hong Kong movies (outside of pornography) usually have, but it serves a purpose. It helps give deeper insights in to the characters. Sex, in the film, is always a means to gratify physical desires; it is never done as a passionate expression of love. The only characters not shown having intercourse are Jeff and Mona, the only ones truly in "love."

There is one other scene in the film that clearly shows the difference in Jeff and Judge's characters. After the second duel, Jeff is lecturing Sam (after rescuing him from Judge in the nightclub) on how betrayal is not "righteous". In the following scene, Judge lectures Deano (mourning the loss of his wife, Virgin, who was killed by Judge on suspicion of betraying him) on how in order to survive "one must be cruel". Jeff is concerned with the higher thoughts of righteousness at any cost, while Judge is only concerned with survival.

The violence in this movie is still quick and brutal, but it is executed under more stylistic means. The clear example is the shoot out from the perspective of the bullet. Another example is when Jeff rescues Sam from the loan shark by single handedly taking on his whole gang with a butterfly knife. First the water drips on the knife, then Jeff stabs some people, and once again the knife is put under the dripping roof this time washing away the blood on the blade. These are just little things, but it is a clear departure from Lam's previous body of work. He is just adapting his raw violence with genre flavor. He does the exact same thing in his lone period kung fu effort, Burning Paradise (1994). In fact, the whole movie, not just the violence, is an experiment in style. There is more music synchronization than usual Lam films, but the soundtrack is more diverse than the usual piping of Hong Kong pop tunes. The film starts with American Heavy Metal and is then followed by Cantonese rock, Thai rock, and European style techno.

The performances in this movie are great all around. Chow Yun-Fat is his typical cool self, casually muttering one-liners and exuding machismo. However, the movie is stolen by Simon Yam as Judge. His icy portrayal of the villain is mesmerizing. It is impossible not to hate him by the end of the movie. It truly shows the range that Yam has as a performer. He can play a slick CIA agent in John Woo's Bullet In The Head (in which he also stole the show) to a deranged sociopath in this film. The other standout is Anthony Wong. He is one of the few formally trained actors to come out of Hong Kong cinema, and it really brings his film performances up a notch. In the same year, he was completely wasted in Hard Boiled as the standard gangster villain, but in Full Contact he is given a very complex role in Sam, a well meaning person who lets his cowardice and weakness of character get the best of him. Wong just takes the role and runs with it. He is the only character that actually changes over the course of the film (for better), and it is his character that both Jeff and Judge depend on. Wong handles the pivotal role with ease. Of course, it would be a crime not to mention Bonnie Fu as the truly sex crazed, Virgin. She delivers sleaziness with almost haunting comfort. She did not really star in that many movies preceding and proceeding this film, and it is a shame because she had talent.

Even though this film is a departure for Ringo Lam, I would say it is more of an evolution of style rather than an abandonment of everything he has done before. Starting with Full Contact, he experimented with genre efforts by adding his own flavor of urban cynicism. His following film, Burning Paradise, takes place in the period kung fu world of Fong Sai-yuk and Hung Shi-kwan, but is a radical revision and a lost masterpiece. He then made the solid Vietnam/gangster film The Adventurers (1995) that is criminally overlooked due to being somewhat in the same vein as John Woo's Bullet In The Head. After that, he headed to Hollywood and made Jean Claude Van Damme's most solid effort (in terms of all around film) in Maximum Risk (1996). However, of all of Ringo Lam's films, this is his tour de force. In the short but gloriously lived ultra violence genre, few films can claim to be in league with Full Contact.




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